Sexing up Pope Francis

My corner of Florida has been over run by college students on Spring break. While Daytona Beach, Miami and Fort Lauderdale have lost market share over the past 40-years to Texas, Mexico and points South, there are still enough kids in town this week to make the merchants smile and locals complain about "those kids" and their sex, drugs and rock and roll. Sounds like a story pitch for a 60's beach film -- Frankie and Annette, Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue -- maybe Ann-Margret and Elvis? The stories wrote themselves back then.  Sex continues to sell. Where would the tabloids or MTV be with out the Page 3 girls, the Kardashians and the denizens of the Jersey Shore?  And where would the New York Times be without homosexuality? While it is harder and harder to sell religion news stories to the trade -- a "naughty vicar" story will always find a buyer.

But sex isn't what it once was. Its omnipresence has robbed it of its marketing value, mystique (and romance). "Sexed-up" no longer refers solely to hormone drenched teens or blue movies, but in journalism it refers to improving a story to make it more palatable (more salable) to editors who in turn want to attract more readers with stronger stories.

The phrase settled into the media psyche during the second Gulf War. It is commonly believed that a 29 May 2003 report by BBC defense correspondent Andrew Gilligan broadcast on Radio 4's Today program originated the phrase. Gilligan reported that a senior British official told him a dossier prepared by the Blair government to support the war against Saddam Hussein had been "sexed up". Specifically the government's "September Dossier" had made the exaggerated claim that weapons of mass destruction could be deployed by the Iraqis within 45 minutes of Saddam Hussein's order.

Improving the story by making it sexier than the facts allow did not begin in 2003. It is long been the bane of good journalism. Its prevalence was the theme of my chat last week with Todd Wilken, the host of Issues, Etc.  In our conversation broadcast on 21 March 2013, Todd and I discussed my article “Is CNN pushing the “Dirty War” story?” posted at GetReligion and discussed the phenomena of shoddy reporting on Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio's alleged collusion with the Argentine military junta's crimes during the "dirty war".  Todd asked whether I was saying that it was wrong to voice criticisms of the Pope or to ask questions about his past?

I responded that this was not the issue. The Pope and the Catholic Church should be questioned. However in this instance I argued that CNN was "pushing" the story. It had abandoned objectivity, balance, and a desire to seek out the truth for the transitory pleasures of a sexy story about potential papal perfidy.

I contrasted CNN's work with the three main Parisian dailies: Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Liberation.  The French papers all reported the accusations of misconduct as well as the denials by the Vatican. However, they framed the stories to give Francis the benefit of the doubt. The allegations were unproven the French papers reported, but they also provided sufficient facts and context to allow readers to make up their own minds.

This is not as exciting an approach to CNN's guilty until proven innocent but it is better journalism.

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