Secular-sacred union between Washington state hospitals

Suffice it to say that your GetReligionistas frequently receive emails that sound something like this: In the Sunday, April 28, 2013 Seattle Times there is an interesting story on the potential impact of Catholic hospitals taking over public hospitals. ... Overall the article is interesting and informative; however, as a former reporter I found it perplexing how the author ... slips into what is essentially an advocacy role in the story.

Paragraph four reads: "But over the years, these citizens have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they don't want religious doctrine espoused by someone else -- surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle -- to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices."

That strikes me as editorializing. ...

Actually, this is a close call for me. The key is an editing rule that I try to teach my journalism students every semester.

Consider this journalism question: Must reporters include an attribution phrase with each and every sentence, or even paragraph, that they write? This is an especially tricky issue when reporters offer paraphrased quotes built on multiple interviews, as opposed to direct quotes from one specific individual or document.

I teach students this rule: Never let readers go more than one paragraph without knowing the source of the information. Stated another way: It's OK to have a paragraph without an attribution clause if its information is clearly connected to information in a previous paragraph that is clearly attributed to a source or a group of sources.

In this case, the story opened by discussing debates in a Washington town called Sedro-Woolley about changes linked to the merger of their small, struggling secular hospital with a multistate Catholic health-care system. In that context, readers are told:

Critics say they’re not anti-Catholic or anti-religion. And they don’t underestimate the hardship and hard work of the dedicated nuns who brought health care to remote logging and mining towns in Washington before it was even a state.

But over the years, these citizens have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else -- surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle -- to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices.

“When a hierarchy of a religious entity is in charge of the ethics of a hospital, then they are in control -- not the members of a community,” says Mary Kay Barbieri, 69, co-chairwoman of People for Healthcare Freedom, which is fighting the proposal.

Well now. For me, what we have here is a questionable attempt to chop one strong summary paragraph -- note the connecting "but" in the third sentence -- into two punchy paragraphs, perhaps to quicken the pace for readers.

However, in doing this, editors created a strongly opinionated second paragraph that is not clearly linked to that earlier attribution phrase, "Critics say they are not ..."

Would our GetReligion reader have reacted negatively if the editors had been more old school and added a few more words to the offending neo-opinion paragraph? What if the story had said: "But over the years, these critics have paid hard-earned tax money to keep United General Hospital open, and they insist that they don’t want religious doctrine espoused by someone else -- surely not someone in Rome or even Seattle -- to govern their reproductive and end-of-life choices."

Better? What does the story lose through that tiny addition?

It's likely that our reader would not have had a negative reaction to that, or if the two paragraphs had been combined with that crucial "but" clause in the middle.

Picky? You bet. But this is an important and loaded topic. There are, to state the obvious, crucial church-state issues involved and the setting is oh, so provocative. As the story later notes:

It may have been inevitable that Catholic doctrine and public values would clash in Washington. In no other state have voters directly insisted on having both the right to legal abortion and to a doctor’s assistance in hastening death at the end of life -- not to mention same-sex marriage, which the church also opposes.

Catholic religious communities in Washington, on the other hand, have a long history here of building hospitals, often in underserved areas, and caring for the poor. The three major systems -- Renton-based Providence Health & Services, Tacoma-based Franciscan Health System and Vancouver-based PeaceHealth -- together employ more than 48,000 people in the state.

“Health care in this country was initiated under the guidance of Catholic religious communities,” says Sister Kathleen Pruitt, until recently vice president for ethics at PeaceHealth. “Health care is part of our DNA.”

But what happens when you have a Catholic institution that continues to directly receive some local tax dollars? The church-state issues are much clearer when a private hospital is totally private, or secular hospitals are able to stay open in an increasingly competitive medical marketplace. But, as the story shows, these mergers are taking place.

The American Civil Liberties Union shows up as a source, as it should. But for me, as a willing reader of stories about church-state conflicts, I wanted to know more about the legal issues on the church side of the issue, the arguments for the church institution to practice its own unique approach to health care (even while receiving SOME public money). What have courts said about that? What if the only other choice is no local hospital at all?

In the end, what we have here is basically a solid story about a complex issue, only with a few editing flaws. Right?

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