Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Journalism 101 and the Pope's Interview

For the past 80 years or so my tiny home parish has put on a traditional Dutch sausage & sauerkraut dinner as a fundraiser for the church and its school. It's a huge event, known throughout the state, and the local news channels usually cover it. They send down a camera crew, talk to people, eat some sausage, then go off to produce their segment.

And every year the story gets something wrong: they mispronounce someone's name; they place our parish in the wrong city; they quote someone who has little to nothing to do with putting on the dinner and they say something incorrect. You see this and think, "Man, what a bunch of amateurs! They got this all wrong!"

But what do you do then? You watch the next segment, and assume that everything is accurate and correct! Even though you just saw for yourself that they make mistakes!

When we know something about an event being reported, we're able to see where the reporting goes wrong; why don't we remember that when we hear other news stories?

I was reminded of this recently in the hubbub over the interview with Pope Francis. Newspapers and TV news outlets made a story out of this interview, but anyone who had actually read the interview for themselves would be able to tell you that these news media grossly distorted what the pope had said.

Every single news story I saw on the interview made the same fundamental reporting mistakes, things my journalism classes taught me were absolutely unacceptable in reporting.

  • They made the increasingly more prevalent error of mixing news analysis with news reporting, speculating on the pope's intentions or motivations in giving the interview. The news page is supposed to report what happened; the editorial page is supposed to give opinions. If the news page wants to give voice to the opinions of particular people on a story's content, they should attribute those opinions to those particular people, e.g. "Professor John Q. Academic thinks this could signal..." instead of just saying, "This could signal...." Really? It could? Says who?
  • They quoted the pope out of context, warping his words to make him say things he didn't. In most stories, this practice started right at the headline and worked its way down. Nearly every headline said something like, "Pope says church is 'obsessed' with rules on abortion, contraception, gay marriage." What a gripping headline! Only problem is HE DIDN'T SAY THAT. This glues together words from THREE DIFFERENT PARAGRAPHS to fabricate a quotation. In one paragraph he said, "We cannot insist only on issues related to abortion, gay marriage and the use of contraceptive methods" (adding that "the church's teaching on these things is clear"); in another he said "The church’s pastoral ministry cannot be obsessed with the transmission of a disjointed multitude of doctrines to be imposed insistently" (instead desiring to first and foremost focus on the "proposal of the Gospel"); and in another he said that "The church sometimes has locked itself up in small things, in small-minded rules." Nowhere did he say what the headline reported him to say.

How did these news outlets end up making this mistake? They took their first mistake of improperly inserting analysis into news and applied it to these quotations. The headline they concocted tells you more about what the media thinks on these issues than what the pope thinks: to them, the Church's teachings on these moral issues are nothing but small-minded rules that the Church has spent far too much time obsessing over.

Your ten-dollar word for the day is eisegesis, which means "the interpretation of a text (as of the Bible) by reading into it one's own ideas." The news media, in reading and reporting on the pope's interview, was doing eisegesis: they inserted their own presuppositions and opinions into the text and tried to make the pope their puppet. Whether this was done intentionally or not, I couldn't say. Sometimes people just hear what they want to hear. But, at the very least, I would hope this episode would make you wary of trusting everything you read or see in the news. If they can't even get my parish dinner right, why should you expect them to report accurately on a 12,000 word interview? 

1 comment:

  1. AWESOME analysis and I hope that many, many people read it!