If you were creating the Ten Commandments of daily Journalism, you would certainly find the statement, "All news is local," somewhere near the top of the list (but after "Don't bury the lede"). Just because this commandment is true doesn't mean that it's the only truth that reporters need to take into account when they are reporting about complex news events, including those that center on debates about religious doctrines and traditions.
You could see this pretty clearly in the coverage of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this past week. This was an event that had something for everyone, from nuanced debates about liturgy to, yes, discussions of several topics linked to sex. It helps, of course, when the sex being discussed is also linked to politics.
There's that formula that your GetReligionistas love so much -- sex plus politics, minus doctrine, equals headlines.
You can understand, of course, how the Washington Post ended up with this "All news is local" lede early this week, in light of recent events. In a way, this was inevitable. I am sure the editors carved this news angle in stone, because of you know what:
The nation's Catholic bishops approved a position paper that emphasizes the church's traditional positions on marriage Tuesday, the same day that the D.C. Council agreed to schedule a vote on legalizing same-sex unions for Dec. 1.
The "pastoral letter" is part of a campaign launched in 2004 to counter the breakup of traditional families, said Richard McCord, executive director of the bishops' committee on marriage and family life. The campaign initially was meant to highlight the divine in everyday aspects of marriage. It has turned recently to more political concerns, such as the creation of a committee to lobby against same-sex marriage bills such as the one pending in the District.
The bottom line: This is a news story about a church-state conflict and, as such, it adds new wrinkles in a small amount of space. This political side of the story needs to be covered. However, what about the actual subject of this document from the U.S. Catholic bishops? The Post is one of America's top newspapers. Where are its readers supposed to learn about the actual subject of the pastoral letter, its attempt to defend Catholic traditions and the debates about its contents, especially in light of the 45 votes against it?
Sorry, but that isn't the local story this time around.
However, the bishops were meeting in Baltimore, which is certainly a city with deep Catholic roots and symbolism. Thus, the local Baltimore Sun coverage of the same document offered a different take, one that was, ironically, more national in scope.
Then again, I guess the national angle was the local angle, if the meeting was in Baltimore?
The nation's Roman Catholic bishops approved a broad new document on marriage Tuesday, laying what its writers described as the foundation for the American church's efforts to promote the institution as the joining of one man and one woman.
"Thank goodness this is out there, clearly stated, with ample documentation and very reasonably put forward," said Archbishop Edwin F. O'Brien of Baltimore, which is hosting the all general assembly of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops this week. "I think it's going to be a very positive document."
While "Marriage: Love and Life in the Divine Plan" does not represent new Catholic teaching, bishops said the pastoral letter would address a need for an authoritative source to which church leaders may refer as they campaign against divorce, unmarried couples living together and same-sex unions.
Quite frankly, I was glad that a newspaper mentioned the fact that the bishops focused much of their attention on issues other than homosexuality. If you read newspapers these days, you'd think that gays and lesbians are the only people in Catholic pews (and other pews, of course) who have any reason to go to confession.
If you look at the statistics, the bishops have other subjects that they need to spend more time discussing. That is, there are topics that need major discussion if the goal is to defend centuries of Christian tradition on marriage and family.
But you see the problem, I hope. How do I know what the bishops are debating, other than what is covered in the mainstream press? I could read dozens of Catholic blogs, of course, if I want the discussions of doctrine, rather than simply the political headlines.
The Sun, however, did provide glimpses of the actual heart of the document:
Before the session, the bishops circulated statistics showing that American couples have grown less likely to marry and more likely to live together. Those who do marry tend to do so later in life, and the probability that they will divorce or separate is between 40 and 50 percent, according to a University of Virginia report.
"People are entering into marriage probably without an adequate appreciation of the beauty of marriage and the gift that it is," O'Brien said. "The document is meant to strengthen Christian marriage, to prepare people who are going to be married before they enter that bond to appreciate what the commitment is, and also to open a discussion in our culture as to what the differences are today and to try to reach some common ground."
The letter defines marriage as "a natural institution established by God the Creator" and called it "a permanent, faithful, fruitful partnership between one man and one woman" that has two purposes: "the good of the spouses" and "the procreation and education of children." It says "Male-female complementarity is essential to marriage" and "attempts to make same-sex unions the equivalent of marriage disregard the nature of marriage. ..."
And then we are off, once again, into the world of contemporary issues and their applications to current political debates.
I know this is hard for reporters. What we have here is a clash between centuries of Christian doctrine and new doctrines rooted in the Sexual Revolution, one of the greatest earthquakes of modern times. It's hard to cover the past in media that are rooted in the present. But, when those doctrines and traditions frame the content of the news story, readers need to know that.
The facts are the facts. I am sure that the bishops cited scripture and the teachings of the early church in their discussions and debates. A hint of what they talked about would have helped, on the way to the business-as-usual political headlines.