A tried, true and irrepressible journalistic contrivance to pull media consumers into a story is the widely played conflict card. And by conflict I mean of any kind — two nations in opposition, or two politicians, two ideas, two religions, two siblings; two of anything with strongly differing goals.
Theater, films, novels, opera and other story-telling forms have their own conflict cards, of course. It's the stuff of drama. But since this is a journalism blog we’ll put those others aside for now.
Conflict grabs attention, enabling us to relate to news stories. Pick a side and you’re emotionally engaged and providing your own backstory, beyond what’s been reported. We all succumb.
The problem is that journalists -- brace yourself because the following words will likely rock your understanding of how journalism is practiced -- often overplay the conflict card, molding mountains from molehills, trying to breathe life into a conflict that’s already been largely settled.
Shocking, isn't it? Why would journalists do that?
Well, how about because we need a hook and we’ve got nothing better? Or because we believe its what an editor and the news consuming public expects? It's our programmed default.
Sometimes it’s done because a reporter is working off assumptions that no longer apply, confusing past with present.
Take the following New York Times story from the Philippines that strives in its lede to portray a hot conflict between the Roman Catholic Church’s historic teachings and influence, and the nation’s widespread contemporary acceptance of homosexuality and alternative gender identities.
It's not a badly constructed story, in my opinion. Opponents and proponents get their say. However, the story is undercut by it's attempt to give oxygen to a conflict that seems largely settled.
Published in late April, the story’s angle is provocative, made more so by its accompanying photos; transgender Filipinos and their degree of acceptance in wider society.
MARIA RESPONDO, Philippines -- Angel Cabaluna dusted makeup onto her thighs, styled her hair in loose curls and applied smoky eye shadow that glittered on her lids.
As this hamlet of cornfields and concrete houses prepared for festivities honoring its patron saint, and as some people gathered in prayer, Ms. Cabaluna, 20, was primping to compete in an annual transgender beauty pageant.
“This is our passion,” she later said.
Dominated by conservative morals taught by the Roman Catholic Church, the Philippines is also one of Southeast Asia’s most tolerant countries toward gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people. And lawmakers are taking steps to ensure national legal protections that would penalize discrimination against them.
At the pageant, children sat cross-legged in the dirt, crowded close to the spindly stage where the contestants spun and danced in red feather headdresses, gold brocade and clouds of tulle. The crowd laughed and cheered as they delivered flowery speeches, weaving jokes with witty rhymes, beauty-queen platitudes and proclamations on gender equality.
In a nearby chapel, the pageant’s blaring pop songs mixed with the steady rhythm of churchgoers reciting the rosary.
Catch the conflict card in the fourth graph?
It's the conflict posited between the church’s conservative moral code, said to still dominate Filipino society, and alternatives to that code offered by Western secularism’s -- modernity’s, that is -- changed social and political codes.
Except there really is no such conflict. The church no longer dominates the Philippines, despite four-fifths of its 106 million residents being classified Catholic.
Times have changed, at least in the Philippines, and what the church officially teaches has been widely rejected -- like it or not.
I’ve posted previously about this diminished Catholic influence. The headline: “About those Filipino Catholics: What does it mean when a murderer is elected president?” It ran at the very end of 2016, Christmas time, actually.
The president in question is, of course, Rodrigo Duterte, the self-confessed participant and proponent of extra-judicial killings for those swept up in his scorched earth anti-drug policies. Here’s some of what I wrote then.
Yes. The people of the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Roman Catholic nation, freely voted into office a man who brags about his extra-judicial killing of those he judged to be incorrigible drug dealers and abusers, and others. And his henchmen follow his lead. And the Filipino people say they're, by and large, just fine with it.
This despite the fact that their church leaders openly and repeatedly condemned Duterte.
Here’s some more with key indicators of Catholicism’s waning influence among Filipinos.
How is it that the majority of Filipino Catholics – despite the hierarchy's fierce opposition to Duterte – are either supportive of or cowered into silence by their elected government's attitude toward criminal justice?
Only about 40 percent of the Philippines' nearly 80 million Catholics – the world's third largest Catholic population after Brazil and Mexico – reportedly attend Mass regularly; about 29 percent consider themselves very religious. The Pew Research Center also notes that Pope Francis is really, really popular in the Philippines. Go figure.
That would seem to indicate that Filipino Catholicism – a faith imposed by the archipelago's Spanish colonizers – is little more than a cultural tag for the majority of those baptized into the church. You get baptized into the church, married in the church and buried in accordance with Catholic protocols. But you're free to live a pick-and-choose life in between rites of passage.
This isn't the first time, of course, that a Catholic hierarchy has been overwhelmed by rightwing politics. Fascist Spain and Italy are but two examples. Many traditionalist Catholics today would even argue that rightwing politics is more in line with church moral teachings, than is the Filipino church’s -- or El Salvador’s before it -- liberal or left-wing attitudes.
But that’s not the dominant issue here. I’d say that’s the current Filipino attitude toward non-traditional sex and gender roles and how they’ve all but vanquished traditional church teachings. Even the Times story, despite its playing the conflict card, acknowledges this.
A survey published by the Pew Research Center in 2014 found that 73 percent of Filipinos said gay people and lesbians should be accepted by society. By comparison, neighbors Indonesia and Malaysia polled at 3 percent and 9 percent.
Attitudes in the Philippines were comparable to countries like Britain and Italy, and ahead of the United States, where acceptance is at 60 percent. The survey found that tolerance is correlated with rich, secular societies.
I’d have noted that Indonesia and Malaysia are Muslim nations, in which sexuality and gender issues are subject to a whole other set of social, religious and political equations. As it's written, this reads like comparing apples to oranges.
Your thoughts? Feel free to contribute them below. Don’t be inhibited if they’re in conflict with mine.