Lessons learned

womenpriests2 05Whenever we write about stories involving Roman Catholic Womenpriests, we get a ton of reader feedback. Part of that is because much of the coverage has been so weak over the years. But part of it is because the issues surrounding the group get at the heart of what animates many believers -- authority, Scripture, social issues, personal determination. It's all very interesting stuff. Earlier this week, we looked at a couple of Boston Globe reporter Michael Paulson's stories on recent activities by the Roman Catholic Womenpriests group. We compared the difference between his earlier story and his subsequent story. Paulson had gotten quite a bit of feedback, some of it helpful and some of it just angry, over his first story and worked diligently to incorporate the lessons into his subsequent piece.

Paulson has a new blog -- freshly launched -- where he discusses the experience. Readers of this blog will probably find it a very interesting look at how stories are drafted and edited. He explains in his blog post that he neither wrote nor saw the headline -- "3 women to be ordained Catholic priests in Boston" -- before it was published. A subhead that mitigated some of the problems with the headline was dropped in various online pages. Criticism exploded in the blogosphere. Paulson responded by posting much of the email he received and personally corresponding with those who emailed. His follow-up story, filed after the actual ceremony took place, had a much improved headline:

The language I used in the stories also changed somewhat. I've been at this a long time, and I knew the subject of women's ordination is a bit of a minefield, so in the first story I avoided using the word "Mass," or the titles "Rev." or "Bishop" in front of a woman's name, knowing that those terms would be debated. The story was very clear that the Catholic Church viewed the ceremony as invalid, and the women as excommunicated; it quoted from the Archdiocese of Boston, and Pope John Paul II, and I thought it was quite clear and fair. I did call the event an "ordination ceremony" -- my reasoning was that there are lots of such events in Christendom and beyond that are not sanctioned by Rome, some by Catholics not in union with Rome, and some by non-Catholics, and it seemed to me that the standard practice of newspapers is to honor the language used by religious groups. When an evangelical church declares someone ordained as a pastor, we say that person was ordained as a pastor; we don't conduct an examination of his or her theological training, and we don't ask who else would recognize this person as ordained.

But the reaction suggests that many readers didn't read the story the same way I did, especially once they had seen the problematic headline, and so I decided to rethink the use of a few words -- especially "ordain" and "ordination" -- in the story about the actual event. In the end I decided to use the word "ceremony" rather than "ordination" to describe what was taking place, unless it was attributed to someone, and to attribute every description that I thought might be contested. That resulted, most awkwardly, in this phrase, "They then helped preside over a service at which they declared bread and wine to be consecrated and offered what they called Communion to anyone who wished to receive it."

Paulson said that the second story generated another round of e-mail, which he also posted. Many people thanked him for his second story; others said he went too far in the other direction. His latest blog post says what lessons he learned:

- A traditional journalistic device for communicating more information about a story, the "subhed," does not translate to the Internet. The initial story had a subordinate headline, or subhed, that made clear the church's view of the ceremony, but even on Boston.com that subhed was dropped on many pages, and as the story migrated through the blogosphere, the story was referred to only by the main headline, which was, at best, disputable.

- Another journalist convention, "play," is also irrelevant in cyberspace. As I explained to some readers, if the Catholic Church had decided to ordain women, that would be a huge front page story. The stories about the ceremony this weekend ran at the bottom of page B1 -- a signal, in our view, that the matter was interesting and newsworthy, but not huge. But, of course, in cyberspace those distinctions, which we at newspapers spend a lot of time thinking about, are obliterated.

Some people asked me why we covered the story at all. Several of the e-mailers said they saw no distinction between the ceremony at the Church of the Covenant, and any individual who just declared himself or herself to be the president or the governor. This was my response to one of those readers: "The rationale for coverage is that this is the major group involved in a subject of high public interest and with at least some claim to, or argument for, legitimacy, which is why the Vatican and the various dioceses have responded, which Beacon Hill etc. would not do if your friends swear you in as governor. The e-mails I got make clear that there is a group out there that wishes we would simply not acknowledge that this group exists or is having this event, but that would be an editorial judgment as well, one that many people would view as censorial. I suppose each of our readers, given the options of all that takes place in Boston and the world each day, would put together a different set of stories if they were in charge of the newspaper, and all I can tell you is that we are making the best judgments we can, hour after hour and day after day, trying to decide what is important, significant, interesting, and trying to cover those events and issues in a way that reflects what is happening fairly and precisely."

That second point about play is key. On pulp, the reader is given cues about how important a story is by where it's placed in the paper and on the page. On the internet, every story is in huge type and above the fold on the front page. That might be one of the strangest effects of the internet age.

Either way, I loved Paulson's transparency with his email and his reflections on the story. It's so nice to see a reporter be open about what he was thinking and what he learned.

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