Nineteen Sixty-four is a research blog for the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate (CARA) at Georgetown University edited by Mark M. Gray. CARA is a non-profit research center that conducts social scientific studies about the Catholic Church. Founded in 1964, CARA has three major dimensions to its mission: to increase the Catholic Church's self understanding; to serve the applied research needs of Church decision-makers; and to advance scholarly research on religion, particularly Catholicism. Follow CARA on Twitter at: caracatholic.


Blame Popestock?

Apparently Madrid will profit from World Youth Day. The Chamber of Commerce in Spain’s capital is estimating Catholic visitors brought in 160 million euros (or about $230 million) to the city. I’ve read this in Spanish newspapers but have yet to see it in the American press. Someone who read the Aug. 15 New York Times story “Catholic Clergy Protest Pope’s Visit, and Its Price Tag” (in the A section, page 5; by Suzanne Daley) will likely be surprised. The Rev. Eubilio Rodríguez is the featured source of the story (including his photo, arms crossed, looking angrily into the camera):

“How, he asks, can the Roman Catholic Church be getting ready for a lavish $72 million celebration in this city — some of it paid for with tax dollars — when Spain is in the midst of an austerity drive, the unemployment rate for young people is 40 percent and his parishioners are losing their homes to foreclosure every day?

‘It is scandalous, the price,’ he said. ‘It is shameful. It discredits the church.’”

The story did not include any quotes or references from an independent economist or analyst who might support (or deny) Father Rodríguez’s claims regarding this “lavish” event (he would presumably disregard this because the story informs us that he believes “costs are always fuzzy”). The story does note (in the eighth paragraph) that organizers clarified that the costs are pre-paid by those registered for WYD and corporate sponsors but then adds critics are calling the claims ridiculous. WYD was expected to impact the state only in terms of its costs for extra police and security (in part due to the threat of protests about the cost of the event), tax write-offs for corporate sponsors covering costs, and reductions in bus and train fares. At the same time, all of these costs were expected to be significantly outweighed by the financial gains brought by WYD visitors who were buying local goods and services, taking bus and train trips that otherwise would never have occurred. 

The New York Times followed this story with another a few days later entitled, “Protests Greet Visiting Pope as Austerity Grips Spain” (in the A section, page 8; by Raphael Minder):

Even before the pope’s arrival, the visit was overshadowed by violent clashes in Madrid late Wednesday between the police and protesters furious over its cost to Spain, which they contended was excessive at a time when many Spaniards are scraping by.” 

Yet, the most important part of this story, and perhaps in all of the New York Times coverage of WYD, appears much later—in the very last sentence of the last paragraph, which reads:

“On Wednesday, José Blanco, spokesman for the government and one of Mr. Zapatero’s most senior ministers, added his support, saying that the government’s calculations showed that the event would yield a financial benefit for the Spanish economy.”

This does not seem to fit with the economic analysis of Father Rodríguez that was so prominently featured in the New York Times on August 15. How did this come to be buried in the last line of a follow-up story? I think I understand the discrepency better after reading the comments of Erik Wemple, of The Washington Post, who commented on Archbishop Charles Chaput’s criticism of the New York Times and other national media outlets. In Madrid, Chaput said:

“These are secular operations focused on making a profit. They have very little sympathy for the Catholic faith, and quite a lot of aggressive skepticism toward any religious community that claims to preach and teach God’s truth.”

Wemple’s response:

Check, check and check. Chaput’s description is something that editors at the New York Times, Newsweek, CNN and MSNBC would support, if not frame and post as a mission statement. News organizations should have little sympathy for any entity as powerful as the Catholic Church. And are you really going to pound the media for practicing aggressive skepticism?”

Wait, what? These news organizations have sympathy towards some institutions (and contempt for others) based on how “powerful” they are? First, news organizations should report the news… reality is what matters and anything else likely represents bias. Second, did he say powerful? As a survey researcher I don’t often see the “power” of the Church in the attitudes or behaviors of American Catholics. If the bishops have some great command over the U.S. Catholic masses (or even its most prominent Catholic politicians) the evidence is weak. Finally, if the New York Times was practicing “aggressive skepticism,” the claims made by Father Rodríguez could have used a heavy dose of this medicine.

Another story featuring criticism of the Church by priests appeared on July 22 in the Times entitled, “In 3 Countries, Challenging the Vatican on Female Priests” (in the A section, page 1; by Laurie Goodstein). At first I thought this might be another of the infamous New York Times “trend” stories (more on this at Slate) where a reporter connects relatively obscure and separate events creating a narrative of the new realities facing us that we just haven’t noticed yet (the New York Times does not own a monopoly on this type of story but it is an industry leader. These are the types of stories that make statisticians cry). Examples include the emerging “realities” that more parents are sending their children to summer camp on private airplanes, growing numbers are also building playhouses for $100,000s, book clubs and Tupperware parties are being replaced by pole dancing, having a gut is now cool, women are all starting to dress like Elaine from Seinfeld, more and more single men love cats, alleged criminals are often Yankee fans, Christians are turning to mixed martial arts, and girls tournament sports are helping the economy.

Wait let me read that last one again. If you get hundreds of young people in one location they actually help the economy? I wonder what would happen if you had more than a million young visitors in one city?... Back to the July story… It turns out the reporter wasn’t connecting any dots at all. It wasn’t a New York Times trend story. It was heavily based on dots already connected in a press release. And then it hit me. Sympathies. Searching the New York Times database one finds prominent quotes (in lede paragraphs) from a small set of Church critics that get repeated coverage. I am by no means arguing that these voices do not deserve to be in the New York Times (I was once a reporter myself and deplore any notion of censorship or quieting dissent in the press), but it is unusual how these critics (regardless of the factual nature of their claims) seem to now be driving the coverage of the New York Times and in some cases almost writing its headlines. Criticism is needed when it has a basis in fact. Some of the criticism of the Church appearing in the New York Times appears to have a tenuous relationship with reality (e.g. Father Rodríguez) and good reporters should weed this out by checking data, conferring with experts, and simply applying some common sense. And by no means am I arguing Church leaders should be driving the coverage of the New York Times either! What should be? Facts, reality...

I believe part of the heavy reliance on critics is related to the New York Times devotion to the 1990s journalism school ethos of how to be fair and unbiased. Reality doesn’t matter (from a postmodern point of view it probably doesn’t even exist) and as long as you get quotes from both sides (all stories have two sides; bury the quote from the point of view you personally like less and put the one you favor in the headline and lede) you are reporting in a balanced manner.

I fully understand those who are critical of the Church for the sex abuse crisis and how it handled these crimes. Count me as a critic on this issue as well and I fully expect this topic will continue to be in the news for years where critics voices should be prominent. But I understand that Catholicism is much more than this crisis. There are more than 1 billion Catholics in this world and to them their faith is many things. Many good things and some bad. Catholics are painfully aware of the bad and are ashamed and angered by news of clergy sex abuse. But most are not giving up on their Church, their faith. More than 1 million young Catholics in Madrid made that statement last week as clearly as ever. That was news but it just didn’t make it in the headlines (or even the last paragraph!), which instead were all about WYD “price tags.” Will there be headlines now about the profits? Does someone need to send a press release on this?

The New York Times has claimed that it has no bias against the Catholic Church (1, 2). But I believe recent stories have made transparent some contempt for the Church. When I read about other religious faiths in the New York Times I dont see the coverage of those institutions to be driven by their critics. I dont see the adversarial point vs. counter-point approach that appears in almost any story the New York Times does about Catholicism. In the past, even when I found fault with their reporting, I have still defended the New York Times as mostly just using the healthy journalistic skepticism that Wemple highlights (which is good when applied to all sources). Yet, given the New York Times’ coverage of WYD and other recent stories, I am beginning to think Archbishop Chaput made some valid points in his comments.

Above photo courtesy of adKinn at Flickr Creative Commons.

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