GetGetReligion: Insane editorializing

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University of Illinois Press, 1995.

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University of Illinois Press, 1995.

University of Illinois Press, 1995.

University of Illinois Press, 1995.

Today’s lesson concerns charging reporters with smuggling opinions into news stories. Exhibit A comes by way of the redoubtable Mollie Z. Hemingway, formerly of GetReligion and now senior editor at The Federalist. Still on the lookout for distortions by the liberal MSM, she took umbrage at the following paragraph from the AP story on the Vatican report on nuns a couple of days ago:

The [Vatican] probes also prompted an outpouring of support from rank-and-file American Catholics who viewed the investigations as a crackdown by a misogynistic, all-male Vatican hierarchy against the underpaid, underappreciated women who do the lion’s share of work running Catholic hospitals, schools and services for the poor.

Mollie tweeted; The American Conservative’s Rod Dreher replied (and it went on from there).

For the record, it’s worth noting that there was indeed an outpouring of support for the nuns, as indicated by the May, 2012 RNS story that began, “Catholics around the U.S. are coming together for prayer vigils as a show of support for America’s nuns, whom the Vatican accuses of having ‘serious doctrinal problems.'” And it was Rome’s chief doctrine guy, Cardinal Gerhard Mueller, who invoked the M-word against critics of his investigation when he told Osservatore Romano in September, “Above all we have to clarify that we are not misogynists, we don’t want to gobble up a woman a day!” And the Vatican report itself makes mention of the nuns’ work in education, health care, and social services.

Nevertheless, let’s stipulate that reporter Winfield was making the point somewhat more emotively than traditional wire service norms prescribe.

Now for Exhibit B — the lede to yesterday’s New York Times story by Declan Walsh on the Taliban’s school bombing in Pakistan:

First the Pakistani Taliban bombed or burned over 1,000 schools. Then they shot Malala Yousafzai, the teenage advocate for girls’ rights.

But on Tuesday, the Taliban took their war on education to a ruthless new low with an assault on a crowded school in Peshawar that killed 145 people — 132 of them uniformed schoolchildren — in the deadliest single attack in the group’s history.

“Ruthless new low?” Talk about editorializing, and without even the fig leaf of others’ opinion such as: “But on Tuesday, the Taliban assaulted a crowded school in Peshawar, killing 145 people — 132 of them uniformed shoolchildren — prompting an outpouring of outrage from rank-and-file Pakistanis, who viewed the slaughter as a ruthless new low.”

But Mollie and Rod won’t be expressing outrage at Walsh’s editorializing. Nor will GetReligion’s Terry Mattingly, who declined to criticize the Los Angeles Times for calling the assault “brazen” in a piece chastising the MSM for failing to delve into the Islamic motivation of the attackers.

My point is not that the GetReligionistas object only when their conservative religious ox is gored — though they do. It’s that reporting is by its nature a form of moral discourse. Most of the time there’s sufficient consensus about what’s bad and what’s good that we don’t register the editorializing. Attacking schoolchildren is bad. Helping the poor is good.

But when there’s real moral disagreement on an issue, the charges of media bias start flying. Is same-sex marriage or the right to abortion or legal marijuana or a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants a good or a bad thing? Did American nuns merit their Vatican investigations or not? Which stories are done, what descriptors are used, who gets quoted, and where the quotes are placed all become grist for criticism.

If you want to understand the moral lay of the land in religion reporting, you can check out my book on the subject.

  • Me_10

    “But when there’s real moral disagreement on an issue, the charges of media bias start flying.” Well, yes. Of course. Because issues that are disputed within society are going to be prone to the deleterious effects of hard news writers injecting their own biases. But this is because the reporting in news stories is supposed to be specifically factual as opposed to opinion.

    But what about the Taliban story? Well, putting aside the absurd comparison between stories on the Taliban and the doctrinal purity of nuns, the comment in the Taliban story was not an editorial statement designed to sway readers by giving the impression it was a factual statement. Rather, it was a widely accepted opinion of the moral depravity of the raid, a common view of the horrific qualities of a brutal attack.

    In other words, it was of a quality exactly like that which Silk tries (and fails) to ascribe to the AP story on nuns. But even Silk has to admit that the AP reporter went overboard. So, what then is the ultimate point he’s trying to make? It seems he’s arguing that reporters should freely opine on the basis of “moral discourse.” But reporting has never intended to be moral discourse. That is the province of opinion. In the Taliban story, the reporter was stating a moral consensus held by the community in which he was reporting. In the AP story, the reporter was attempting to characterize criticism of a report in very specific, ideological terms, and as a broad consensus. There’s considerable evidence of such a consensus regarding the Taliban attack. The Vatican report? Not so much evidence, beyond the reporter’s assertion and those who agree with her.

    That is the important difference, and if Silk can’t see that … well then hopefully he will stick to opinion journalism.

  • Mike Fenske

    I don’t think I am either dense or stupid but please clarify. I don’t get the point of the piece … at all!

  • The point is that news stories by their nature embody an editorial point of view. We don’t tend to be conscious of it when it is generally accepted, especially by us. We are highly conscious of it when we don’t share it. Criticism of bias in news coverage comes from those who don’t share the point of view — and the more contentious the issue, the more criticism there will be. None of this is to say that all news stories are equally balanced. While the AP story objected to by Hemingway and Dreher construes the Vatican report favorably, it is hardly “insanely editorial.” Indeed, it’s less editorial, in the plain meaning of that term, than the New York Times piece that no one’s objected to. The issue is not whether a story has an embedded editorial point of view but whether the point of view is controversial.

  • Carolyn Disco

    Thanks, Mark, for the distinctions.

    When I read the NYT piece, I came away with the question, what is the real story here? The text was very professional, carefully worded, but I sensed the core of the story was hidden; the real issues at play seemed so tightly parsed.

    When I then read the AP (or was it Reuters?), I felt the true dynamics at play were much more transparent.

    The GetReligionistas leave me with the sense that they need to get a life as much as a religion — one not so tightly constricted by a brittle rigidity that leaves scant room for breathing. I give Rod more credit in many other cases, but so be it.

    Rome has spoken; the case is closed. Cooler heads are prevailing. Long live Pope Francis. And as always, the debate will continue.

  • Pingback: Silk on Morals, Bias & Media -

  • tz

    only in the mind of a self enlightened …what is truth… liberal is describing the murder of 100 innocent children considered editorializing…to most sane people its called being descriptive. but then again..what do i know…for i am not the one i have been waiting for…

  • Exactly my point, tz. It’s not considered editorializing.

  • tz

    uhmm…no…your point is that neither case was editorializing….my point was elaborating on the evil of murdering innocent children was an objective description that every sane person could readily agree with… provided they didn’t subscribe to the liberal doctrine…repeated by Pilot and contradicted by Christ …what is truth.

    the ap story was editorializing since it assumed all of the suppositions and presented all of the sympathies for only one side in a disagreement…since the murder of innocent children is intrinsically evil…there is only one side to present…their is no way to editorialize.

    you state your opinions with great certitude given your infamiliarity with facts and reason. perhaps you should stop waiting on yourself and start waiting for someone else.