Washington Post offers another 'omniscient anonymous voice' clinic in synod report

One of the most frustrating things in journalism these days (your GetReligionistas write about this all the time) is the blurring line between news and commentary.

It's not simply a matter of snarky material on Twitter by reporters about topics, institutions and people that they are also covering in hard-news stories. That's a problem, but not the biggest problem, from my point of view.

Meanwhile, I'll be honest. If I was a reporter right now, instead of a columnist and an opinion blogger, I do not know how I would handle Twitter.

No, I'm talking about the material that is actually being produced by newspapers, wire services and major news websites. Some use clear labels for "analysis" work and others do not. There are reporters who do straight news and also analysis and, at times, there are no graphics or labels to clearly tell you which is which and what is what.

Some standing online features with titles are news and some are not. There are "reported" blogs and blogs that are totally opinion. The logos often look the same to me. There are online-only features that look like news, but they are not, and people who only see certain newspapers in digital forms have no way to know which is which.

I don't think this digital swamp will be cleared up anytime soon. Still, I want to confess my frustration. This leads me to another example of a related trend, the writing style that your GetReligionistas call "omniscient anonymous voice." Here is how I described this journalistic trend in an earlier post:

Normally, hard-news journalism is written in third-person voice in past tense, with a heavy emphasis on the use of clear attributions for quoted materials, so that readers know who is speaking. That crucial "comma, space, said, space, name, period" formula is at the heart of traditional, American Model of the Press journalism.
The bottom line: It's a key element in retaining the trust of readers. Traditional journalists are, as a rule, going to tell the reader the sources for the information they are reading.

So what are we dealing with when journalists publish copy with paragraph after paragraph of material with little or no clear attribution? You know that this material has sources; but you also know these sources, for some reason, are not being cited. What does this look like?

Consider this recent story in The Washington Post. It carries an "Acts of Faith" headline at the top, which is often on news and often on commentary. Is it a mere subject heading, like "sports"?

Let's walk deep into this report on the big topic of the day, which is the Vatican synod on marriage and family issues:

At Pope Francis’s closed-door meeting in Rome this month, top clergy are intensely debating whether the church should bend more to the messy realities of modern families, and on Wednesday they released some early reports revealing their deep divisions. In daily life, however, contemporary messiness has already changed the Catholic Church.

All together now: Who will be defining the "messy realities" of modern family life and who will provide clear information on how these trends have already changed the Catholic Church? Continuing:

Questions on the agenda at the rare high-level meeting, called a synod, include whether those who divorce and remarry outside the church can receive Communion, and whether there is a place in Catholic life for same-sex couples. Changing Catholicism’s stance toward such things could begin to unravel the unity of the world’s largest church, say opponents who see the debate in Rome as directly tied to the future of Catholicism. But in many parts of the world -- the West in particular -- the church has for years quietly been making changes to engage with Catholic families who are transforming in ways that mirror the rest of the society.

Still no attribution clauses.

Who are these opponents? Note, for example, that it is unclear whether they are opponents of the "trends," efforts to change the church, the synod itself or all of the above. Also note: Who are the leaders in "many parts of the world" who have already changed church traditions and/or doctrines? Any names to cite?

Seminaries and theology schools have added classes on sex and family that were absent a decade or two ago. Some of the highest-level bishops are open about not denying Communion outright to anyone, even if the person appears to be violating church teachings on the family. And Francis has changed the entire conversation about what threatens family stability by emphasizing things like economic stress and cultural isolation rather than a deviation from orthodox sexual ethics.

Any examples of seminaries to cite? Any names for "highest-level bishops" who are already violating church teachings on, it appears, the link between Confession and Eucharist?

Also, only Francis is talking about the economic realities and cultural stresses that are affecting the family? The suggestion is that (a) the pope is not orthodox and (b) that the orthodox are not interested in these other pressures on families.

Wednesday’s reports from the dozens of bishops at the synod show them staking out varied and often highly nuanced positions. The 13 working groups are divided by language. The majority of the four English and three French groups appeared to either dismiss any significant changes or reserve judgment, while delegates from Germany and some Spanish-speaking nations were calling for progressive changes, including one proposal from the Germans to allow priests to make exceptions to teachings prohibiting Communion for divorced and remarried Catholics.
Some of the powerful Italian-language groups, meanwhile, suggested bishops should have the final say. The divide appeared to set up a furious final few days of debate before a final draft of synod’s position is voted on this weekend. The document -- which will be voted on paragraph by paragraph -- will ultimately serve as a recommendation to Francis, who will have the final say on any changes.

Zero clear attributions to this point. Also, when using "appeared to" language, it is crucial to state who is making this kind of judgment.

These discussions are happening because church leaders have lived through the same dramatic social changes as everyone else, shifts that have raised new questions. Will the church not recognize longtime committed same-sex couples, including those who are married, in a society that is rapidly accepting gay equality? Or accept expanding reproductive technologies (some now forbidden)? Or reconsider the validity of a second marriage in a world where life spans are dramatically expanding?

OK, another question: Who is framing these questions and are they they only questions? Are we hearing the voice of the Post or of specific authorities inside the church?

But nothing has had as significant an impact as Francis, many say. He has brought into the open discussions about how Catholicism can be more pragmatic about modern family life, rather than emphasizing the rules and that nothing can change, a common paradigm in recent decades. While he hasn’t veered from traditional doctrine on the family as the ideal, his emphasis on accommodation and forgiveness seems to be having a great effect -- including creating the most anxiety-ridden Church leadership meeting since the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s, another period of ferment.

"Many say." And "rules" instead of "doctrine." "Seems to be having." This is textbook stuff, "omniscient anonymous voice" 101.

Simply stated. Where is this material from? Who is being quoted? The story, latter on, uses a few attributions that suggest the unsurprising sources. But note how far readers can go into this story with no attribution material whatsoever.

The bottom line: Are the editors of the Post producing news for a wide range of readers or for those who already share its approach to framing these trends and events?

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