On blogging, religious liberty and 'bell-ringing homilies'

Every semester, there is a class at the Washington Journalism Center in which the students and I wrestle with one of the most important issues in the age of digital journalism: What exactly is a weblog? Since I did some of my graduate work at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, I am one of those people who strive to follow the doctrine that "technology shapes content." For me, the term "weblog" refers, first and foremost, to an empty box that has been created by a particular form of software.

Thus, not all blogs are alike. It depends on what bloggers choose to put into that box.

In fact, the same box/blog can contain radically different kinds of information. It's easy to use this software to deliver hard-news content hour after hour, day after day. It's possible to use this same box -- because of its unlimited depth, or "news hole" -- to contain ridiculously large amounts of detailed information (such as hyperlinks to annotated versions of all of the legal briefs ever written by a nominee to serve as chief justice). And, yes, blogs can also serve as platforms for analysis or pure opinion writing in which writers (such as your GetReligionistas) are free to express their views on a variety of issues.

When most people hear the word "blog," they probably think of this kind of first-person, opinion-driven work.

But just because something runs in a blog doesn't mean that it can't be valid news. There is news, and there is opinion (oceans of it), at the "On Faith" site run by The Washington Post. And, there is a mixture of news and opinion in the "Faith & Reason" site operated by veteran religion-beat scribe Cathy Lynn Grossman at USA Today.

This is natural, since Grossman generates way too much news and information for the dead-tree-pulp pages of that national newspaper. Much of her work runs in her blog, where it becomes the only, or the primary, USA Today news content on many important events and trends. Rest assured that if I was on the beat full-time, these days, I'd be doing the same thing.

However, this format -- news and opinion, running in the same blog -- does lead to confusion from time to time for readers, especially when major news events end up being covered with analysis work in the blog, without corresponding hard-news coverage in the news pages.

Take, for example, that Fortnight For Freedom Mass on the 4th of July at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C. -- which drew nearly 5,000 people into one of the world's largest Christian sanctuaries, which seats 3,500. Now, this particular event has drawn relatively little mainstream news coverage, especially when contrasted with the wave of coverage of the comparatively small crowds of people who gathered to hear the doctrinal and political thoughts of a small number of liberal nuns, touring on a bus.

Thus, there is much to praise in Grossman's blog post about this service -- such as her hard-news content about the scope of this D.C. event, and similar events held across the nation. The piece is also packed with hyperlinks to key documents and sources of other information -- left, right and center -- linked to the Fortnight For Freedom effort. That's one of the best parts of the technological box known as a weblog, of course. Grossman's blog post also includes large chunks of the keynote sermon delivered by Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput.

So what is the problem here?

Take a look at the top of this USA Today blog post:

Independence Day abounds in political patriotic displays. But today Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput brought theological fireworks in a bell-ringing homily on the Affordable Care Act as an enemy of freedom under God.

For two weeks now, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has pounded the drums for religious freedom from every available platform.

The trigger: The ACA's requirement for employers to provide free contraception insurance coverage, coverage bishops say will force the faithful to violate church doctrine on abortion.

The U.S Conference of Catholic Bishops launched a national push to assert that government (i.e. the Obama administration) should not decide who is religious enough to be exempt from government mandates.

The problem -- if this is a news report -- is that Chaput's speech (text here) never mentions, directly or indirectly, the Affordable Care Act. Meanwhile, Grossman states, as fact, that this homily was "on the Affordable Care Act as an enemy of freedom under God." In fact, Chaput's sermon never addresses the seven (church-bulletin insert here as .pdf) religious-liberty concerns that led the U.S. bishops to create their special committee on religious liberty and, later, to launch the Fortnight For Freedom project.

In fact, it's pretty clear to anyone who scans the text or views the video (above) that Chaput set out to deliver a sermon that affirms America's religious liberty, yet stresses over and over that, for Christian believers, there are issues linked to freedom, salvation and human dignity that are even more important. Instead of being a political sermon, it's about the belief that politics -- even when affirming the good -- are not the ultimate reality.

With her use of the word "trigger" a few lines later, Grossman appears to be following the mainstream media's template stating that the whole religious-liberty emphasis truly began with the HHS birth-control mandate and, thus, as a movement in opposition to the administration of President Barack Obama.

It doesn't really matter that Chaput has been writing and speaking on religious liberty topics ever since he was named to the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom way back in 2003.

It doesn't matter that most of the seven religious-liberty concerns listed by the bishops predate the Obama administration.

It doesn't matter that key members of the U.S. hierarchy have been growing more and more concerned about religious-liberty trends in the United States ever since 2006, when Catholic Charities of Boston stopped doing adoptions, facing the impact of new gay-rights laws, rather than violate centuries of Christian doctrines on marriage and family.

Still, let me stress that Grossman has every right to her interpretation that the Fortnight For Freedom campaign was "triggered" by the HHS regulations and -- she accurately notes -- their decree that the government should have the power to draw the legal lines between freedom of worship (stuff in churches) and free exercise of religious convictions in public life (ministry that touches the public). There are plenty of people who agree with her and, when it comes to expressing that point of view, I think the word "trigger" is an excellent term to use, in this case.

But, to wrap things up, the problem is that this USA Today blog post does not say this is her opinion. It also doesn't quote anyone else -- say George Soros -- voicing this particular interpretation of the on-the-record facts. It simply states that the HHS regulations sparked this effort and that's that. There are, of course, other possible interpretations of the known facts. Consider, for example, this very interesting "Advisory Memo To Journalists" from Sister Mary Ann Walsh, on behalf of the U.S. bishops.

If this is an opinion piece in her weblog, Grossman has every right to make that case on her own.

But what if this is seen as the only news piece published by USA Today on this important event? What then? Should an analysis piece of this kind be labeled, or is that simply understood to be the case since this ran in a weblog? The problem is, as I said earlier, that Grossman does a fine job of using her blog as a forum for valid news. How to readers know the difference?

Also, what about the factual error in the blog post's lede? Whether this is a news piece or a work of analysis, it is simply inaccurate to state that Chaput delivered a "bell-ringing homily" on the Affordable Care Act, when he never mentioned it.

Well, I am pleased to note Grossman has decided to add the following note -- at the top, no less -- of her previously published online piece:

Archbishop of Philadelphia Charles Chaput takes issue with my post putting a political context to the homily he gave in Washington on Sunday at the concluding event of the Bishops' Fortnight for Freedom.

Francis Maier of the archbishop's staff sends these concerns via email:

We've heard from dozens of people -- some delighted, some enraged -- commenting on the archbishop's giving a "political" or "partisan" homily, based on your article. That is precisely and deliberately what the archbishop didn't do. ...

Read it all. Read Maier's remarks and read Grossman's whole piece. As I stated, it contains tons of interesting and perfectly valid material.

Editor's note: It goes without saying that comments should focus on the journalism issues in this post, not on opinions about Chaput's sermon or to the related doctrines and social issues.

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