NPR 'smear job' on Catholic university?

A regular GetReligion reader alerted us to an NPR "smear job" — as he described it — on his alma mater, Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio.

Here's the headline atop the report:

College Course Lumps Homosexuality, Rape, Murder

The top of the story:

The Franciscan University of Steubenville in Ohio faces questions about its accreditation because of a course description that links homosexuality with crimes like murder, rape and robbery.

The university's social work program offers the course, called SWK 314 Deviant Behavior. The course description reads: "The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness and drug use."

Members of a Franciscan University gay and lesbian alumni group on Facebook discovered the course description and have asked the school to change it.

The reader who shared the link felt that NPR favored the course's critics in its story. After reading the report, I'd have to agree. The piece has a one-sided feel to it (perhaps not surprisingly given the source).

Right at the top, NPR plays fast and loose with the facts. The intro makes it appear that the university's overall accreditation is at issue. That would be its accreditation with the North Central Association. Keep reading, though, and it turns out the accreditation question relates to a departmental accreditation (the Council on Social Work Education).

Also interesting is that NPR quotes only a portion of the course description. This is the full description via the university website:

SWK 314

DEVIANT BEHAVIOR focuses on the sociological theories of deviant behavior such as strain theory, differential association theory, labeling theory, and phenomenological theory. The behaviors that are primarily examined are murder, rape, robbery, prostitution, homosexuality, mental illness, and drug use. The course focuses on structural conditions in society that potentially play a role in influencing deviant behavior.

NPR interviews two alumni critical of the course, including one up high:

"As a lesbian and as a psychological professional, I found a couple of things offensive," says Elizabeth Vermilyea, who graduated from Franciscan University in 1991 with a psychology degree. Today she's working on a doctorate and consults with mental health organizations. She objects to including both mental health and homosexuality in that list.

"The state of the art in science on homosexuality is not that it's deviant," says Vermilyea. "The DSM — Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders — has removed it ... as an illness."

That manual certainly sounds important. But I wish NPR had provided more context to help understand it, including quoting a third-party expert.

NPR relies on a written statement for the university's side of the story:

In a written statement to NPR, the school says, "Franciscan University follows Catholic Church teaching in regard to homosexuality and treats homosexual persons with 'respect, compassion, and sensitivity' (Catechism of the Catholic Church, No. 2358) while holding homosexual acts as 'intrinsically disordered.'"

The university says the term "deviant" is used in the sociological sense, to mean "different from the norm." And it says the course "covers a wide range of topics including crime, alcoholism, heterosexual deviance and homosexuality."

If the university refused to grant an on-the-record interview, then a written statement may be the only way to report Franciscan's side of the story. Even then, some elaboration on exactly what the Catholic Church teaches concerning homosexuality would improve the report.

Moreover, the story suffers from a lack of any interviews with (a) a professor who teaches the course or (b) a student or alumni who has taken the course. Wouldn't their insight and reflections on what is actually taught concerning homosexuality be relevant in an unbiased news story?

Is this a smear job or simply bad journalism? You decide. 

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