When a story uses extra adjectives or adverbs to pretty up a story, you know something might be fishy. If the information, data and narrative can't speak for themselves, it's worth reexamining the piece more closely. I had that fishy feeling when I read The Economist's lengthy piece on the Catholic Church's finances amidst the abuse scandals. On first read, you could spot strange word choices, ones an editor would often delete. Right up top, the writers make judgments before you can even read and decide for yourself. See the words I bolded for examples:
[T]he finances of the Catholic church in America are an unholy mess. The sins involved in its book-keeping are not as vivid or grotesque as those on display in the various sexual-abuse cases that have cost the American church more than $3 billion so far; but the financial mismanagement and questionable business practices would have seen widespread resignations at the top of any other public institution.
The piece hammers away before you can begin to understand how The Economist comes to its conclusions.
The picture that emerges is not flattering. The church’s finances look poorly co-ordinated considering (or perhaps because of) their complexity. The management of money is often sloppy. And some parts of the church have indulged in ungainly financial contortions in some cases—it is alleged—both to divert funds away from uses intended by donors and to frustrate creditors with legitimate claims, including its own nuns and priests. The dioceses that have filed for bankruptcy may not be typical of the church as a whole. But given the overall lack of openness there is no way of knowing to what extent they are outliers.
Can we safely say it's time to strike "legitimate" from our vocabularies? Really, it's unclear what the reporter expects of the Catholic Church's financial openness before you can get into how it's "sloppy."
The church is also increasingly keen to defend its access to public health-care subsidies while claiming a right not to provide certain medical services to which it objects, such as contraception. This increased reliance on taxpayers has not been matched by increased openness and accountability.
When you finally get down into the numbers, you can see for yourself how the finances play out. The piece offers some interesting details and you can get a grasp of where the resources go, but the snark runs throughout the piece into the graphics ("Many mansions") and images chosen for the piece (Timothy Dolan is Manhattan's largest landowner?).
Before you assume looking at the Catholic Church's finances is like looking at just any old spreadsheet data, you have to take other factors into account. While I got hung up on the piece's writing, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's Ann Rodgers posted the following comment on her Facebook page (reposted with her permission):
While much of this is very interesting, I think the author mixes apples and oranges. Catholic hospitals are rarely under diocesan control for anything other than doctrinal purposes. To talk about hospital access to municipal bonds in the same paragraph as discussions of diocesan financial woes due to abuse suits shows a poor understanding of church structure.
Ding, ding, ding! If you read her reporting, Rodgers "follows the money" as much as another scrutinizing reporter, but she also knows how to follow it with an understanding of how the Catholic Church works.
To flesh out Rodgers's initial reaction, we have a post from Nineteen Sixty-four, a research blog for Georgetown University's Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate, a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church.
Recently I was contacted several times by a reporter at The Economist for some data. I’ve always felt that this is one of the last few intelligent magazines on the racks. But I also recall being concerned after speaking to this reporter and thinking, “he doesn’t quite get the Church.” He seemed stunned to find out that the Catholic Church in the United States doesn’t have a neat and tidy set of financials done annually. He felt the Church should be doing what any multinational corporation would do. I kept telling him the Church is not Walmart.
Mark Gray emphasizes that he does not think The Economist is anti-Christian, but instead he carefully goes through and shows how the reporter assumes too much, misunderstanding the Catholic Church structure along the way. Read it all. Right now.
The Economist report could be pretty interesting if it weren't couched in such a snooty assumptions and wording. Even if you don't study the Catholic Church like Gray does, you can still sniff out a poorly reported story. Why can't the numbers, used and compared appropriately, speak for themselves?
Reprimand image via Shutterstock.