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Why do editors tolerate misleading reports?

By Phil Lawler (bio - articles - email) | Aug 31, 2010

Granted, secular newspapers are not in the business of settling theological disputes. But they are—or should be—in the business of providing their readers with accurate information. This headline from the Arizona Republic can only mislead readers:

Catholic church ordains woman as priest

Anyone who took the time to read the news report—and this would apply to an editor and/or headline writer-- would realize that the headline gave a skewed impression. The group calling itself the “Ecumenical Catholic Communion,” which welcomed Elaine Groppenbacher to the ranks of its clergy, is “one of several liberal Catholic offshoots” in the region. It is not the institution that any ordinary reader would recognize as the Catholic Church.

Again, I don’t expect a secular newspaper to provide a thorough explanation of why it’s impossible for a woman to be ordained into the (real) Catholic priesthood. But I do expect any objective reporter to let readers know when they’re talking about the Catholic Church, and when they’re talking about a tiny eccentric sect that claims to be a part of the Catholic Church.

The Republic drops a few hints, to be sure. For instance, speaking of two female members of this sect’s clergy, the paper observes:

Both Ringler's and Groppenbacher's beliefs track with much of Catholic theology, the women said.

The group’s liturgy, too, imitates the Catholic Mass, the report notes. The sect is making an effort to persuade people that it is part of the Catholic Church. That’s misinformation, and a good reporter would label it as such.

Yes, there are similarities between the Catholic Church and the Ecumenical Catholic Communion. There are also similarities between me and the Pope. (We both have two arms, two legs, etc.) If I were to announce tomorrow morning that I am the Pope, and release a series of my own ex cathedra statements, I hope that no reporter would be silly enough to identify me simply as “the Pope,” and no editor would approve a headline saying that the Catholic Church had promulgated new doctrines.

Competent journalists make distinctions, and help their readers do the same.  When journalists announce with a straight face that the “Catholic Church” has ordained women, they are misleading their readers. The only question is whether they’re doing so inadvertently, because they’re incompetent, or intentionally, because they’re malicious.  

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Show 4 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: Gaby - Sep. 03, 2010 9:50 AM ET USA

    or maybe it's just wishful thinking?!? Them banking on the power of suggestion?!? Or promoting their pet notion that it is possible to reject official church teaching and still be considered "Catholic"?

  • Posted by: stpetric - Sep. 01, 2010 7:43 AM ET USA

    A third possibility is that they do it intentionally, because they're cynical. They're in business to make money by selling papers (and by delivering readers to advertisers), so if a headline causes you to pick up the paper, it has succeeded in its marketing task. In this perspective, the truth or accuracy of a story is secondary to its role in drawing readers.

  • Posted by: polish.pinecone4371 - Aug. 31, 2010 7:20 PM ET USA

    Hey Phil! Why don't you experiment? Why not call yourself Pope and set up your own series of ex cathedra statements? Oh, I forgot. It's already been done (http://popemichael.vaticaninexile.com/home.html). And there is that little thing about excommunication. But one wonders, why doesn't "Pope Michael" get attention while the "ordained" women do?

  • Posted by: Gil125 - Aug. 31, 2010 6:42 PM ET USA

    It shouldn't be difficult to determine whether this mistake arises from incompetence or malice. Call or write the editor and point out the error. If a correction appears the next day, it's incompetence. If not, it's malice.

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