When the former Time and Associated Press veteran talks about gaffes on the religion beat, he often begins with a simple, yet common, example. Here is a brief discussion of that issue, taken from a Scripps Howard News Service column that I wrote (drawn from my chapter in the book "Blind Spot: When Journalists Don't Get Religion):
... Mistakes are mistakes and it isn't good for readers to keep seeing stories that, week after week, cause them to mutter, "Wait a minute. That's just wrong." Here's a prime example, a mistake Ostling keeps seeing in reports about the declining number of ordinations to the Catholic priesthood. This mistake often shows up in news coverage of mandatory celibacy for priests or the scandals caused by clergy sexual abuse.
Journalists often report that Rome does not ordain married men.
"Now it would be accurate," said Ostling, "to say that the overwhelming majority of men ordained as Catholic priests are not married. It would even be accurate to say that 'almost all' priests are not married. But what about Eastern Rite Catholicism, where you have married priests? Then there are the married men who have been ordained in the Anglican Rite, who used to be Episcopal priests. You have a few Lutherans, too."
Now, this is probably not a "media bias" issue. When talking about this kind of error, we are probably not dealing with a question of "objectivity," "fairness" or "balance."
We are talking about a simple question of accuracy. Mistakes are bad. Correct?
So what does this particular error look like when you encounter it in its natural habitat? Consider the opening of the following Christian Science Monitor report on, yes, the clergy-abuse crisis and, yes, the claims that the dominant tradition of a celibate priesthood in the Catholic West might be part of the problem.
Vatican No. 2 Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone made headlines ... when he appeared to ease the church's absolute position on celibacy, telling Spanish radio the centuries-old rule is not an "untouchable" one. The prelate's comment was part of a Vatican affirmation of celibacy and a strong view that there is "no direct link between celibacy and the deviant behavior of certain priests," as Cardinal Bertone put it.
But even opening the door slightly on such a deeply cherished practice is a concession to persistent questions tied to revelations of child sexual abuse in the United States, Germany, Ireland, Belgium, Kenya, and Austria that has put the church in crisis, analysts say. From the start of the Catholic priest child abuse scandal, Vatican officials have pointedly sought to play down the role that mandatory celibacy may or may not play in the abuse and cover up surfacing this spring.
OK, let's set aside that strange "Vatican No. 2 Cardinal" reference, which is most strange. Is there a scorecard somewhere containing these rankings?
This passage contains yet another reference to the Catholic church having an "absolute position on celibacy," which is simply not accurate. Even the reference to "mandatory celibacy" needs to be linked -- a tiny link is all that we need -- to this tradition's dominant, but not exclusive, role in the Catholic West.
As Ostling said, celibacy is clearly normative. But it is not an "absolute" doctrine in the churches that are in union with the Church of Rome. Period. That is an inaccurate statement. That's bad and, in a few passages, the ripples from that error touch other parts of this story.
Come on, people. Read some church history. Get it right.
Photo: A married Catholic priest, a former Anglican, and his family.