Click-bait aggregation at Washington Post debases New Jersey Catholic girls' hoops story

We call it click-bait; these come-hither headlines that make you want to read whatever’s below them, even if it’s about a topic that doesn’t interest you.

Who can turn away from this headline: Basketball revolt: Make the girls quit or forfeit, N.J. archdiocese told grade schoolers. They forfeited.

Unfortunately, the  piece was highly aggregated, meaning the newsroom team apparently did no original work, but mashed together various accounts from other online sources. And then there were the snide comments to what ran in the Washington Post’s Morning Mix:

The Catholic Church, in its roughly 2,000 years of existence, often has felt the pressures of social change.
Same-sex couples want to get married. Divorcées want to take communion. Girls wanted to be altar servers. Women want to be priests. And in New Jersey this year, elementary schoolers -- particularly the female ones -- want to play basketball.
The cause has mobilized people in two towns in northern New Jersey who feel that, in the year 2017, gender discrimination has no place in athletics.

No mystery here as to what the reporter thinks about the matter. Who is being quoted? Where is this material coming from? These are basic journalism questions.

In Kenilworth, a 12-year-old girl at St. Theresa’s Catholic school was expelled, then re-enrolled, after her parents sued the institution for not allowing her to play basketball with the boys. There wasn’t enough interest to field a girls-only team.
And just a few miles away, in Clark, a Catholic Youth Organization team of nine fifth grade boys and two girls from St. John’s school was forced to cut short its season and forego the playoffs last week when league officials learned of their co-ed status and offered an ultimatum. Make the girls quit, they said, or forfeit.
The rowdy band of 10-year-olds, who had been teammates nearly half their lives, said no. Instead of a scheduled game against another school, their season ended Friday with an inter-squad scrimmage, “unity” T-shirts, a pizza party and prayer, reported N.J. Advance Media.

The next few paragraphs all crib from the Advance’s account. Finally:

Comprehensive coverage by N.J. Advance Media has propelled both stories into the state and national spotlight and portrayed the Catholic Church, once again, as a roadblock to equal opportunity, even as other institutions, like the Boy Scouts of America, have moved in recent years to shed traditional gender norms and accept both gay and transgender scouts.
The cases also show the disconnect between the Church’s stance on social issues and the way its future potential congregants and priests and deacons and nuns see the world. An Innovation Group survey released last year found that 38 percent of Gen Z respondents (aged 13-20) agreed strongly that gender defines a person less than it used to, and 40 percent said they somewhat agree.

How about inserting the word “purported” before the word “disconnect” so this story doesn’t sound so much like an editorial?

The story goes on, still quoting Advance Media, then switches to quoting from CatholicPhilly.com. Then it throws in a paragraph from the Associated Press, a local TV station and finally “Good Morning America.”

Hey, I know it’s tough to get your own sources when the story occurs several states away and it’s easier to take material from the folks who already have boots on the ground. But if I’d wanted aggregated news, I would have gone to the Huffington Post, which is famous for it.

People turn to the larger, elite newspapers because they want original reporting. If the newspaper doesn’t have the time or staff to do its own stuff, use a wire service. But no, the Washington Post leadership doesn’t want to go there, so they aggregated. There’s already been one public embarrassment about one Post blogger/aggregator named Elizabeth Flock who said the pressures at the office made her resign. That was in 2012. Five years later, little seems to have changed.

As I finish reading the story, it feels like I’ve been handed one huge advocacy piece for mixed-gender sports teams. There’s not one original quote from the Archdiocese of Newark here nor anything about some of the secular research out there that shows that girls often do better in single-gender environments. 

What are the archdiocese’s theological reasons behind this? There have to be some; why else would many Catholic churches not allow girls to be acolytes? But all we hear are their fears of a lawsuit and then “safety” reasons for girl and boy athletes not to mix.

Then at the end, we get four paragraphs of commentary from a University of Connecticut coach who has nothing to do with the New Jersey fracas but happens to have an opinion that agrees with the direction of the story.

To get any sense of balance, I had to dig into the comment section where several people with some knowledge of the events voiced alternative views about what was really happening. For instance, is it true that the girl on the St. Theresa’s team had the opportunity to play with an all-girl team at another school? Why wasn’t that in the story?

How about looking at the topic from different angles? As one person asked, what if it had been two boys wanting to play on a girls’ team?

But no, the appetite is for more and more click-bait and so these types of pieces are rolled out. It doesn’t have to be this way. One newspaper that stands against the tide is the London-based Guardian. Being overseas with deadlines some five or six hours earlier than Eastern Standard, a European outlet can be excused for aggregating stories to speed things up. But no, the Guardian does a ton of original reporting.

So can journalists on this side of the pond. They just have to want to.

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