Inventing homophobic bogeymen

A couple of weeks ago, The Observer (U.K.) ran a brief editorial arguing that the Anglican Church "must not be complicit in gay persecution in Africa." The editorial began with the doctrinal statement "Homosexuality is not a sin or a crime." Normally we don't concern ourselves too much with the house editorials but this one is different. The piece quotes an Anglican bishop of in Nigeria saying that homosexuals are "inhuman, insane, satanic and not fit to live."

Only problem? He never said it. The quote, which originated back in 2007 with the News Agency of Nigeria, was widely distributed by United Press International. At the time, the bishop strongly denied having said it. And the reporter admitted that the quote was false. The News Agency apologized and UPI pulled the story off the wire.

So when the story appeared in this 2010 Observer editorial, folks around the world alerted them to their error. It's what happened next that boggles the mind. The readers' editor concedes that the reporter said the quote was false. And he concedes that the bishop denied making the statement.

But then he says that this does "nothing to clarify a confused situation." The readers' representative says the story stands.

How, can you ask, is this possible? Well, a blog called "Akinola Repent," which opposes the former Anglican Primate of the Church of Nigeria (the Most Rev. Peter Akinola), speculates that the confession might have come at gunpoint or something. So if you believe that conspiracy theory, and if the bishop was lying when he denied the statement, and if you did precisely no other research on fairly accessible paper trails and interviews from the time of the brouhaha, well, then, you might let the story stand, too. But is this appropriate journalistic practice for Stephen Pritchard, president of the Organization of News Ombudsmen, and a readers' editor since 2001?

In his note, he also makes it seem as if the bishop is somehow to blame for being misquoted:

So the bishop apparently denies calling homosexuals "insane", but appears to stop short at issuing a full-scale condemnation of the sentiments expressed in the disputed statement. And this is where the problem lies. Until such a statement is made, the UPI piece will still be quoted all over the internet by those wishing to expose homophobia in the African church. Consequently, it is still accessible to reporters and leader writers trying, in a hurry, to make sense of this disturbing story.

Unbelievable. Before I even get to any substantive critique, can I just laugh at the line "trying, in a hurry"? This whole brouhaha went down in September 2007. The editorial appeared in May 2010. The alleged comments were refuted in a matter of hours and days, not months or years. What rush could Pritchard possibly be talking about? I suppose we should be glad that they didn't attribute the made-up quote to Akinola, as half of the internet subsequently did.

Besides, this "blame the victim" retraction isn't even correct. Pritchard alleges that the bishop merely denied the "insane" portion of the quote. But The Living Church News Service did some actual reporting on the ugly quote when it first surfaced. Here's what they found through their top secret reporting method of asking questions of key players:

A spokesman for the Church of Nigeria, Archdeacon Akintunde Popoola, told The Living Church the quote attributed to the bishop was false.

The Bishop of Uyo "denied making such a statement," Canon Popoola said. While the bishop's address to his diocesan synod did speak to the issue of human sexuality dividing the Communion, and the Church of Nigeria's position on these issues, "he did not say that [gays and lesbians] are to be hated, nor that they are insane or unfit to live."

In fact, the bishop in question responded immediately after the false report. The Nigerian Church's press release is still online here:

Also, speaking on the recent publication on the internet about an homophobic statement attributed to him in his recent synod address, Rt. Revd. Isaac Orama lamented over what he called a false statement published on the internet and called on the media to desist from publishing wrong statements for public consumption.

According to him, what he said was that CANA is the offshoot of the Church of Nigeria's response to the unbiblical agenda of the Episcopal Church of United States of America in supporting same sex marriage and consecrating in the year 2003 the publicly acknowledged gay priest V. Gene Robinson as bishop.

And if you read his actual synodical address, that's exactly what he said. That address is long but even a quick scan -- or, heck, a keyword search -- would hopefully give pause to any reporter (or readers' representative) worth his salt.

You see, Orama is a real man and his reputation has been horribly harmed. This is not something to take lightly. This is not good journalism.

I worry that this is what happens when folks in the media don't even bother to understand the traditional Christian teachings on sexuality. It makes it easier to assume that the only possible opposition to homosexuality is based in homophobia.

What we have here is an extreme example of a journalistic sin that few would (we hope) even attempt to defend, but it happens on a smaller scale all the time. Often, accurate statements of traditional Christian teachings on this matter are kept out of news stories, not given the space they need to be clearly explained or reduced to caricature.

But hopefully, no matter what one's position on homosexuality or other contentious issues, we can agree that when reporters mess up a quote or some other key fact, the error should not be compounded. Mistakes are mistakes and should be corrected.

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