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Fighting False Balance in the Media

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Margaret Sullivan now wears the public editor hat at The New York Times and with a recent ombudsman column took on a huge media problem: False balance aka false equivalency. False balance reports are those that appear fair because they have two sides, except that one side reflects neither knowledge nor a right to speak.

Reports on Catholicism are especially vulnerable to false balance, and often it is achieved through manipulation of the name "Catholic" and religious symbols such as veils and Roman collars. More media than The New York Times fall prey to it.

Some agenda groups who oppose one or more Catholic teachings, for example, use the name "Catholic," even when there seems little evidence of Catholics in their ranks and no evidence that they represent Catholic teaching. Catholics for Choice, once known as "Catholics for a Free Choice," comes to mind. When some reporters, especially inexperienced ones, cover a story with a Catholic angle, they presume a mere use of the term "Catholic" means knowledge. They will turn to any group with "Catholic" in its name to respond to an issue. Catholics for Choice is happy to talk whether it's about abortion, nuns, pedophilia or the pope and AIDS. Apparently this satisfies some sleepy editor's quest for balance. However, going to Catholics for Choice for a so-called Catholic view is like asking Catholic Atheists (yet to exist, I think) to opine on the meaning of God.

Surely the Catholic Church has a right to its "brand" which includes getting to say who validly can use its name. Be assured that a group such as Catholics for a Free Choice, headed for 25 years by the former director of the National Abortion Federation, a trade association for abortion clinics, and funded by pro-abortion foundations specifically to neutralize the Church on abortion, doesn't qualify as a legitimate Catholic group. It is hard to imagine how anyone can take seriously a group whose founder celebrated the first anniversary of Roe v. Wade by having herself crowned pope on the steps of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City.

However, religious clothing drew attention then, and even today, religious clothing draws reporters. Media love veils and collars and attribute to them infused knowledge. For a picture, any nun in a veil will do. One sister who has been sans veil for decades, for example, donned one and drew cameras last February to lobby the Maryland statehouse for same-sex marriage. Her remarks about being a Catholic sister since 1961 were more crass in-your-face than Catholic as she stood against the Church on this issue.

A Roman collar, imagined or otherwise, also works for media. Once I got a call from a reporter who wanted to interview a priest. With none available, I suggested he speak with a knowledgeable layman. The reporter said that if he couldn't have the priest, he wanted me. Asked why, he said he wanted a collar. I explained gently that in the Catholic Church I would not be wearing a collar anytime soon. Clearly he was less after an informed opinion than a stereotypical image.

Margaret Sullivan has her work cut out for her at the Times. I hope she can stand up to reporters and doesn't opt to do her job the easy way, and that she can stand fast in her fight for coverage that's a fair reflection of reality. It's a great goal for the nation's newspaper of record and for all media.