How to write a perfect 'Kellerism' story about a complex debate in Catholic news

The other day a Catholic who is a longtime GetReligion reader, and a media professional, sent me a note to say that he had spotted a perfect example of the "Kellerism" worldview that is blurring the line in some elite newsrooms between hard-news coverage and unbalanced, advocacy, editorial analysis.

This particular story wasn't in The New York Times. Instead, it ran on the Crux website that The Boston Globe operates to cover Catholic news. That caught me off guard, since anyone who reads this weblog knows that the Crux team runs lots of fabulous stuff and is usually quite careful when it comes to marking news as "news" and analysis as "analysis."

Before we dissect this news report a bit, let's take a short refresher course on "Kellerism.."

The term is a nod to the statement by Bill Keller of The New York Times, days after he left the editor's chair, that his newspaper had been committed to balanced coverage on matters of politics -- but not on moral, cultural and religious issues. Click here for more on that and here's a link to the video of the event in Austin, Texas.

The bottom line: Why should journalists do fair, accurate coverage that shows respect for traditional religious believers whose ancient views are clearly wrong, according to the modern doctrines affirmed by the priests of Kellerism? Why cover two points of view when one is right and the other is wrong?

This particular Crux story focused on a hot news topic -- whether Catholic institutions have a right to employ only people who affirm (or do not publicly attack) the doctrines of the faith. The headline: "Rally planned to support fired gay church worker in Maryland."

For nearly two years, Jeffrey Higgins led parishioners in song at Mother Seton Catholic Church in Germantown, Maryland, at three or four Masses each weekend. But this Sunday, he’ll find himself outside, joining protesters upset about his firing as a part-time cantor following an anonymous complaint that he married his longtime partner.
Higgins said that in November, he was called into a meeting with the pastor, the Rev. Lee Fangmeyer, who explained to him that someone had forwarded photos of Higgins’s wedding to him. The pastor, Higgins says, said he could resign or be fired.
He chose not to resign, so he was let go.
“I loved working there, I loved singing with the choir, they were great people. I felt very accepted,” he said. “It didn’t feel like a place where people would go after me,” adding that he felt “blindsided” by the news.

Now, it would be wrong to say that church leaders were not represented in this Crux report. However, as the GetReligion reader noted in a private email:

I should note that the piece follows the typical Kelleristic formula -- quote directly from supporters of whatever the social movement is but only quote from documents or the previously published material of those who oppose that particular movement.

In other words, one side speaks through material drawn from real interviews with the Crux team and the other speaks through pieces of paper from church officials.

A key point: If members of the church hierarchy refused to be interviewed, it would be good for readers to know that. It would help if journalists -- pointing toward efforts at fairness -- once again began using old-school language in their stories, such as "repeated requests by Crux for interviews with parish and archdiocese leaders were declined."

Thus, readers are left with:

The archdiocese said in a statement that Higgins knew the rules about what kind of conduct was unacceptable for someone in his role, and it stood by the firing. “If someone chooses to live publicly in a manner that is incompatible with Church teaching, their continued work in ministry becomes untenable,” the statement said.
It went on to say that Higgins was fired not for his sexual orientation, but because the marriage put in jeopardy “his ability to publicly and authentically manifest the teaching of the Church.”

In other words, would a celibate gay who affirmed church teachings have been fired?

In academic settings, it is common for faculty and staff to sign doctrinal covenants in which they promise to defend basic teachings of the faith tradition represented on the campus. In this case, however, we are talking about an actual worship leader in a parish.

Also, readers might want to know about the 9-0 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2012 affirming that religious institutions and ministries can hire and fire staff based on judgments about doctrinal issues.

The rest of the Crux story -- literally -- is based on interviews with activists who want to see changes in Catholic practice and doctrines on marriage and sexuality. For example:

“It is time to ask tough questions at every parish, school, and social service agency,” wrote Bob Shine, social media director at New Ways Ministry. “Are these exclusionary actions really what Catholic identity means? Is our community’s care for employees really transformed by God’s mercy? How does the Church’s mission suffer when we lose wonderful church workers?”

If archdiocesan leaders would not speak to the press (and it is not clear in the story that this was the case), were there not pro-Catechism Catholic activists who were willing to speak to the Crux team? Why, on an issue this controversial, publish such a one-sided "news" report?

The answer? It sure looks like "Kellerism."

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