One of the big questions that specialty-beat reporters always have to ask themselves is this: "How much background information can I assume that my readers know about the subject of this complex story?" When writing to an audience in North America, for example, one does not have to explain "Christmas." That would be different, however, if the reporter in question is writing about Christmas in an old-calendar Russian Orthodox parish that happens to be in a North American city -- which would require explaining why this holy day is on the seventh day of January.
A religion reporter may need to explain the details of Ramadan when writing to readers in, oh, Knoxville, Tenn. But would you need to cover the same background information in Detroit? In a mainstream news outlet in New York?
I raise this question for a simple reason, linked to a rather strange passage in a story from the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. The lede is rather straightforward, discussing the actions of three men who had been attempting to sue the Vatican because of sexual abuse by clergy in a Kentucky diocese. Once of their goals was to question Pope Benedict XVI under oath.
Now, please read the following background material closely:
The lawsuit was considered the first in the U.S. to make it to the stage of determining whether victims had a negligence claim against the Vatican, which argued the plaintiffs never showed a connection between Rome and the American clergy abuse scandal. Filed in 2004 by the three men abused by priests in the Louisville diocese, it argues in part that U.S. bishops should be considered employees or officials of the Holy See. ...
An attorney for the Vatican, which is referred to in the lawsuit as the Holy See, said the Kentucky lawsuit lacked merit.
Now here is the question that bugged the GetReligion reader who sent this one in. How many people who read mainstream newspapers need to be told that the "Vatican" is often called the "Holy See"? I mean, for starters, when you click on Vatican.Va the browser tells you that you are visiting "The Holy See."
Here's some more strangeness. The story, at several points, uses the terms "Vatican" and "Holy See" in contexts that assume that readers know that, well, they are connected. This is rather like saying that the "White House" has something to do with the institution known as the presidency of the United States of America.
I don't mention this because I think we are dealing with some kind of serious error. It's rather funny, methinks, but it's not the end of the world. No one needs to run a correction.
Instead, I raise this point because I wonder what GetReligion readers -- especially Godbeat pros -- think about the wider issue of "inside baseball" language in mainstream news. If America is getting more pluralistic and diverse (and that is certainly the case), do reporters need to be more careful than ever, or can reporters assume that most readers are becoming a bit more informed?
Feel free to cite an example or two of terms that you think are, or are not, safe at this point? I mean, does one need to explain that the "Vatican" is often called the "Holy See"?