One of the greatest challenges that journalists face, in my humble opinion, is knowing how to handle a strong, newsworthy statement of fact by a person of authority that simply cannot be verified as accurate. Don't you hate that?
It's like in the movies when a person is forced to make a quick decision between right and wrong and then those two imaginary figures appear out of the air, with an angel on one shoulder pleading for the right choice and the little red-suited demon on the other shoulder saying, "Ah, come on, you know you want to ..."
The journalist knows that, on the one hand, the newspaper is about to print a statement of fact/opinion that is clearly attributed to a source. The paper is not saying that what the source is saying is true, it is saying that the person says it is true. Then you print someone on the other side disagreeing and you're done. That's that.
On the other hand, there are questions that simply cannot be answered in terms of clear statements of fact. Perhaps they are beyond scientific research ("Creation is the result of a random process") or they are attempts to turn highly private and complex realities into statistics ("Ten percent of the U.S. population is gay").
Case in point: This Times of London story by veteran Godbeat reporter Ruth Gledhill, who opens with this crash-boom-bang opening:
The openly gay bishop whose ordination sparked the crisis in the Anglican Communion has claimed the Church of England would be close to shutting down if it was forced to manage without its gay clergy.
The Bishop of New Hampshire in the US, the Right Rev Gene Robinson, who is divorced and lives openly in partnership with a gay man, said he found it "mystifying" that the mother church of the Anglican Communion was unable to be honest about the number of gay clergy in its ranks.
He said many of the English church's clergy lived openly in their rectories with gay partners, with the full knowledge of their bishops.
The problem, of course, is that there is no way to pin a number or a statistic on this.
How many gay priests must a Church of England bishop lose before he forced to shut down? But wait a minute. The claim is that the Church of England would "be close" to shutting down. And, come to think of it, that vague statement is linked to an undefined number of "gay clergy," as opposed to "sexually active gay clergy." That's two very different groups of people, under church law.
There is more fog, of course.
(Robinson) said The Episcopal Church, under threat of sanctions from the Communion's Primates if it does not row back on its liberal agenda at a meeting of its bishops in September, had been ordaining gay priests "for many, many years."
He said: "Not every bishop will do that but many do. I will and have. Many make a requirement that the person be celibate, but many do not make such a requirement. It's interesting that the wider Anglican Communion has either not known that or has not chosen to make an issue of it before now."
Once again, these statements are almost certainly accurate, but how would one verify them? Later in the article, the gay clergy issue is broadened to include gay and lesbian church musicians and parish officers.
Please do not misunderstand. I am not saying that this story is not valid. I am also not saying that Gledhill should not have written it. I am simply noting that this is a classic case in which a reporter would have to work very hard to create any kind of skeleton of facts on which to hang all of these sweeping statements of opinion that are beyond verification. Where do you get "facts"? Private polls?
Sigh. What to do?
Meanwhile, let me note that -- in addition to serving up this hot story -- Gledhill has also offered readers a chance to read a transcript of the interview with Robinson. Here is one question and response that will certainly be discussed in many corners of the Anglican Communion, in which the bishop describes his conversion into the Episcopal Church:
Q. So it was Anglicanism's spirit of broad enquiry that appealed?
Yes. I go off to college, which quite coincidentally happened to be owned by the southern dioceses of the Episcopal Church and met an assistant chaplain there. When I raised my questions again, instead of telling me that I shouldn't be asking, instead he congratulated me on asking all the right questions and said he didn't have all the answers, but I was welcome to come in and let's look for those answers together. I remember being struck at how undefensive he was about his religion -- that Anglicanism seemed to be big enough and broad enough to allow and even encourage those kinds of questions. It had its own answers, but it existed to help me come to my own answers. I remember thinking 'gosh, that seems to me to be the way religion ought to be'. So I was very encouraged by that.
One day when I was ranting and raving about how much of the Nicene Creed I didn't believe, he said 'well, when you're in church, just say the parts of the creed you do agree with. Be silent for the others. We're not asking you do so something against your integrity'. And again I thought whew, that's what one would hope for from a religion -- honesty and integrity. And I guess that's a theme that has carried throughout my life in Ministry -- that God wants us to be honest and full of integrity.
Photo: The consecration of the Rt. Rev. Gene Robinson.