Concerning RNS, monkey business and early decisions made by the creators -- small 'c' -- of GetReligion (updated)

Veteran Religion News Service Editor Kevin Eckstrom has written a lengthy response to Dawn's current post that ran under the headline, "Religion News Service monkeys around with the Pope Francis evolution speech."  Rather than leave his letter in the comments pages, where few will see it, we will do what we have done several times in the past with letters of this sort (from journalism professionals) and pull it out front for all readers to see.

I'll offer a few words of response at the end. But first, let me note that -- due to no fault of her own, it was a software issue -- Dawn's post ran late in the afternoon, rather than at 9 a.m. She was also in graduate school classes during the day and could not do significant changes to her post after the RNS correction ran. Thus, she added a quick reference to that development at the end, several hours later. This timing issue affected content.

All of the GetReligionistas have full-time work in other jobs and that affects when we write and what we are able to write. Alas, that is normal these days. All journalists in the Internet age, especially in small newsrooms, are swamped and stressed and this affects digital journalism in many, many, ways. Many bloggers are swamped in OTHER JOBS and blog when they can. That is certainly the case around here.

Now, here is Eckstrom's comment:

You, Mohler and others imply that RNS intentionally misrepresented what the pope said. That's not at all true, and you have no basis for that accusation.

-- Here's what happened. The copy that we received from Josephine did not include the term "demiurge." In a bid for clarity, she translated "demiurge" as "divine being," which is close but obviously not close enough. In fact, she asked 6 other reporters in the Vatican press office how to translate the concept into English, and nobody knew. (For what it's worth, when I queried 10 people in the states later about this, nobody here knew what it meant either. I'll admit I didn't even know it was a word.)

-- The official Vatican translation, which included "demiurge," did not come out until the next day. In other words, there was no official transcript against which to compare Jo's translation.

-- Mohler completely read way more into the text than was there. Trust me, if we honestly thought the pope was denying the divinity of God, that would have been an above-the-fold screaming headline. That's obviously not what he meant, and not what we reported, intentional or otherwise.

-- At no point did Mohler -- or the Vatican -- ever request a correction. Yes, Mohler's office did contact Jo about the translation, but it was never more than that. All of this took place on email. Never once did they contact an RNS editor to either express concern or ask about a correction/clarification.

-- All of Mohler's and your angst about this took place on Twitter. Maybe this is surprising to you or others, but we here at RNS don't live and breathe on Twitter. Rather than ranting about a supposed RNS bias that doesn't exist, perhaps you could have contacted us in the real world to ask what was going on or request a correction. But you kept this all to vindictive 140-character tweets that not only questioned our motives, but did so without an ounce of evidence for what was really going on.

-- When this finally reached my desk, we investigated swiftly and issued a clarification, both online and to our subscribers. I'm sorry you disagree with our use of [demigod], but the experts we consulted agreed it was an agreeable term, to put in brackets, to help the reader understand an obscure term like "demiurge."

I know GetReligion is a place where shots are fired before questions are asked -- I've come to expect that. And I know y'all love to crow about responsible journalism without practicing it yourselves. That's your prerogative. But to insinuate that we have some kind of rogue agenda, or that we're purposely misquoting THE POPE to suit our own ends, without any evidence in fact, is not only irresponsible but it's reprehensible. Our biggest sin here is that this editor had never heard the term "demiurge," and a dictionary check failed to shed any light. Fine, guilty as charged. Should have taken that undergrad philosophy class.

But to claim, without any basis in fact, that we did intentionally, and then tried to cover it up by not correcting it, is pretty low, even by GetReligion standards.

One last question: You cite Elizabeth Dias' piece in TIME about how the media totally missed the boat on the larger pope/evolution story -- that what the pope said about evolution and creation was not "new" Catholic teaching. I agree, except that the RNS story ("demiurge" notwithstanding) was one of the few that actually did point this out, and in fact we went out of our way to add background about previous popes and evolution to show that this was not a break with the past. So while the whole demiurge element was (literally) lost in translation, the thrust of the piece was solid.

Kevin Eckstrom / RNS

As a response, let me first share an anecdote from last week during the Synod on the Family wars, which also led to commentary here that in part involved RNS. While working on a synod column for Universal, I called up a priest and scholar here in Beltway-land for a background talk related to my piece, basic fact-checking.

He made an interesting comment. When the "seismic change" furor began in the New York Times and elsewhere he just stopped reading the news report and decided, he said, that he would "wait until the translations came out." In other words, he didn't get all of that hot and bothered because he knew the early news would be based on rushed translations. Period.

To some degree, that is part of what happened with the RNS story. The story did say -- the literal meaning of the words in print -- that God was not "a divine being" and people reacted to the literal meaning of those words. Even in its current correction, RNS is struggling to find words that capture -- in ordinary English -- what the pope was saying. But journalists don't have the ability to wait for the real translations, in cases like this.

The pope saying God isn't really God, yet still is the creator is a strange set of ideas. Thus, the enraged reactions and the eventual correction.

Dawn, in what I must assume was the phrase that most upset RNS leaders, stated: 

For RNS to not only put the words "God is not a divine being" in the pope's mouth but also refuse to correct its mistranslation would therefore be simply irresponsible.

That's strong, but her point was that the words "not a divine being" did not come out of the pope's mouth and, thus, someone had to have put them there. They should have been corrected promptly or, from our perspective, never published in the first place (however, see the above references to journalists being really rushed, understaffed and being forced to deal with bad or nonexistent translations).

One final comment: When began, co-founder Doug LeBlanc and I faced a decision on a crucial aspect of our work. We decided that we would -- writing as commentators and opinion writers, as opposed to news writers -- dissect the work published by mainstream newsrooms.

Would we try to call newsrooms and do basic reporting about the whole who, what, when, where, why and how in the stories -- good and bad -- that we discussed? We decided the answer was "no" -- because we felt that if we did that in some cases we would need to do it in all cases, in the name of consistency. There was no way we could do that.

Movie critics rarely, before writing a review or critique, call up directors and screenwriters and say, "What in the world were you thinking when you wrote the plot of Mission Impossible?" 

We are a media criticism site, for better and for worse. We do occasional pieces on issues related to the craft -- think 5Q+1 and the work (which we hope expands) of Richard Ostling. We are also more than happy, even when the correspondence is a bit tense, to hear from journalists and to print their comments. Thus, we are doing that once again.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Dawn Eden has posted a response to the letter from Kevin Eckstrom.

Kevin, I just returned to my computer after traveling and attending a conference.
The commenter calling himself or herself "Authentic Bioethics" has said nearly all the things I would have said in response to your comment. Perhaps it is time to get some new "experts."
I would add that it does not reflect well upon RNS for you to respond defensively to a criticism of your approach in reporting, or, in this case, misreporting the facts. RNS made an objective error and, in correcting it, inserted another objective error.
Moreover, you say that you only heard of the mistranslation after I began to tweet about it. If that is the case, your reporter erred in failing to report to you that, some time prior to my tweets, Albert Mohler questioned her translation. Mohler is not a nobody; if he is questioning RNS's reporting, then the reporter who received his question should alert you.
From my perspective, RNS's story shows problems in sourcing, reporting, and editorial communication. Instead of complaining against GetReligion for revealing those problems, you should draw upon our critique to fix them.
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