Bad reporting

There’s been lots of talk lately about how the media plays into the sex abuse scandal and while it’s an interesting topic, it’s not what this post is about. The aspect of ‘bad reporting’ I want to talk to is a certain tone-deafness of reporters who are not familiar with the Church to understand what the right headlines are for a statement from the Church.

I figure the best way to do this is by example. I saw this headline on Slashdot: “Pope Rails Against the Internet and Transparency“. The text of the post says:

At a conference on digital media at the Vatican, Pope Benedict XVI attacked the idea of transparency in the Internet age, warning that digital transparency exacerbates tensions between nations and within nations themselves and increases the ‘dangers of … intellectual and moral relativism,’ which can lead to ‘multiple forms of degradation and humiliation’ of the essence of a person, and to the ‘pollution of the spirit.’ All in all, it seemed a pretty grim view of the wide-open communication environment being demanded by the Internet age.

Being no stranger to how things get taken out of context, I clicked on the link to the underlying article. That took me to a article that was a lead-in article to some documentary, so it still wasn’t mostly about what the Pope actually said, but it does include this paragraph:

“The times in which we living knows a huge widening of the frontiers of communication,” he said (according to our Italian fixer/producer) and the new media of this new age points to a more “egalitarian and pluralistic” forum. But, he went on to say, it also opens a new hole, the “digital divide” between haves and have-nots. Even more ominous, he said, it exacerbates tensions between nations and within nations themselves. And it increases the “dangers of … intellectual and moral relativism,” which can lead to “multiple forms of degradation and humiliation” of the essence of a person, and to the “pollution of the spirit.” All in all, it seemed a pretty grim view of the wide open communication parameters being demanded by the Internet age.

I want you to note a couple things:

  1. Notice the partial sentence quotes. That’s a big red flag. Paragraphs can be taken slightly out of context. Sentences can be taken significantly out of context. Partial sentences, that’s a clue that the reporter couldn’t even find a whole sentence that fit what the point they were trying to make and the REALLY had to stretch it.
  2. Notice how slashdot’s paragraph was mostly a quote from this it is significantly different than what Slashdot had. There’s no mention of transparency, nor any of “attack”. Already we’ve got a morphing sense of what Benedict said.

Which brings us to the transcript of what was actually said. I encourage everyone to read it, but assuming your time is limited here are some key quotes:

Without fear we want to set out upon the digital sea embracing the unrestricted navigation with the same passion that for 2,000 years has steered the barque of the Church.

Dear Friends, you are called to take on the role of “animators of the community” on the Internet too, attentive to “prepare the ways that lead to the Word of God,” and to express a particular sensitivity to “the disheartened and those who have a deep, unarticulated desire for enduring truth and the absolute” (ibid.). The Internet could in this way become a kind of “Court of the Gentiles,” where “there is also a space for those who have not yet come to know God” (ibid.).

As animators of culture and communication, you are a living sign of how much “Church communities have always used the modern media for fostering communication, engagement with society, and, increasingly, for encouraging dialogue at a wider level” (ibid.).

As I thank you for the service you give to the Church and therefore to the cause of man, I exhort you to walk the roads of the digital continent, animated by the courage of the Holy Spirit.

See, when you get right down to it, what the Pope said was that digital media is a powerful forum, one that we should make use of to spread the Gospel. It can be use to spread falsehoods and to tear down humanity or it can be used to build up humanity. He’s encouraging us to make it the latter. It had NOTHING to do with “condemning” the Internet. It had even less to do with transparency, of which there is literally no mention in his speech.

See how different that is from what the naive person who just reads the slashdot post thinks?

The thing is, it’s not that the chain of reporters and commentators that brought it to what was posted on slashdot are trying to be misleading, it’s that they don’t understand enough about Catholicism to understand how to properly report on it. They know when Ralph Nader says that a certain car is “unsafe at any speed” he’s not saying that cars themselves are bad, just that they need to be made more safely. But when they hear the equivalent thing from the Pope, the headline reads “Pope says cars are bad”. I’ve done reporting work and I know how rushed it is. There isn’t time to reflect on what’s said. There’s deadlines to be met. So unless they’re extremely well tuned to the context from which the Pope is speaking, they’re bound to be tone-deaf to the underlying point. They don’t have the context to know that he’s not criticizing the Internet itself, but only the risks that go along with it, just like cars have risks that go along with it.

So I encourage everyone, when you read a headline about “the Vatican” or “the Pope”, don’t take it at face value. Do a little digging and read the full speech. They’re usually not that long. Heck, even get a hold of me and I’ll find you the source material. You may still come away significantly disagreeing with the Pope, but you’ll at least be disagreeing with what he actually said, not the deadline hurried tone-deaf version of it. And everyone will be far better off for it.

One Response to “Bad reporting”

  1. saltracer Says:

    Hear hear! Yay, I commented. :)