SEX REPORT TWISTED
Rewrites and bad heads 'make the paper dishonest'
By Peggy Amirault
HALIFAX—The United Church was displeased
with media coverage earlier this year of a report on sexuality by the
church's Division of Mission. Sensationalism and distortion were
The report, "In God's Image .... Male and Female,"
was a study document prepared for the church's 28th General Council
meeting in August in Halifax. There it would be voted on and if
accepted used to promote study across the church in preparation for a
policy statement at the 29th General Council in two or three years.
Press rewrite of the original March 17 Toronto Star front
page story, and imaginative headlines, gave the impression the report
was church policy, whereupon the proverbial item hit the proverbial fan.
In August, the General Council voted to accept the
report as a study paper. Discussion was lengthy and not at all
unanimous. Previous press coverage of the report was not an issue in
that it was not discussed publicly. Press coverage was discussed
Briefly the background: In October 1978 the church
established a 10-member task force (or study group) on sexuality,
marriage and the family. In late January 1980 the executive of the
church's Division of Mission agreed to send the study to the 28th
The March 1980 United Church Observer ran an
item on the study which was picked up by the press, some of whose
members asked for copies of the report and/or interviews. Church policy
is that reports are not released to the public until all Commissioners
to the General Council are elected and have copies. It has also been
policy to issue its documents only to those reporters who attend
General Council and then not until the sessions begin. It was felt a
press conference could not be properly organized before May. Publishing
problems and deadlines that precluded early distribution to
Commissioners also prevented a general press converence and release.
Copies of the report were refused to the press.
But discussion amongst the church's Division of Mission, Division of
Communication and the General Council staff resulted in the decision
that Dr. Robin Smith, chairman of the task force, would give interviews
to Tom Harpur of the Toronto
Star and Denys Hogan of The Globe and Mail.
About 100 copies of the report were in circulation within the church,
so the odds were that sooner or later one would find its way to a
Press picked up and rewrote the Star story. Dr.
Smith, speaking only for himself, described the Star story as "fair
and balanced" although "the headline was not good.... The Globe story was
not quite as good in my opinion as the Star one. But it
still was not too bad. What caused us the real trouble was that CP picked up the
story and did a very shoddy rewrite. I can only say that it was a poor
rewrite. It caused a lot of people a lot of agony, and it caused me the
most profound embarrassment of my life, because it cheapened and
distorted what Tom (Harpur of the Star)
had said ... It was not factual, but that was what all the small papers
across Canada picked up."
NO CORRECTION ATTEMPT
Unfortunately no attempt was made to contact CP to ask for a
correction, or even to voice displeasure—on the advice of the
church's Division of Communications and the press officer. Dr. Smith
said: "The advice of our press officer was not to do anything because
I'd only lose; that if I angered somebody in Canadian Press or
whatever they'd keep on doing bad stories. Now I hope people wouldn't
be as vindictive as that, but you can't help wondering about that
because the press has a lot of power."
was not approached no one will ever know if the resulting
uproar, misunderstandings and misinterpretations of the report could
have been lessened.
Many church members were upset because the press
had been informed before they themselves learned of the report's
contents, or even its existence or arrival. Doubtless some are not at
all comfortable discussing sexuality and don't want their church
talking about it either, or questioning their values and ethics. Others
disliked the report because it was being used to attack and embarrass
the United Church and held Dr. Smith personally responsible. As Smith
said: "From all over the country I got letters from peole saying that
the fundamentalists were having a field day pulling us apart and it was
all my fault."
SOME HEADLINES MISLED
Headlines such as: "A bit of adultery fine says
report;" "Singles given sex okay: church;" "Church study backs singles
sex;" "New gay preacher study;" and "Church slacks back on adultery"
doubtlessly created prejudicial feelings in readers before they read
the stories—or whether they read the stories.
A United Church Observer article
stated: "People made their attacks by phone or letter—some
short and terse, others filled with pages of biblical quotes. Almost
all voiced anger and hurt over media coverage of the Division of
Mission's Task Force report on human sexuality. Readers were 'stunned
and saddened,' 'shocked and betrayed,' 'greatly disturbed,'
'devastated' and 'ashamed.' They said their church was 'held up to
ridicule,' had 'lost touch with the Absolute' and had 'pulled the rug
out' from under them ..." A minister wrote: "I have been placed under
fire by my own church, from conservative Christians who are condemning
me and my church for a controversial report that I am not even allowed
to see. Yet I have to defend my church for it."
Surely such comments indicate that more than
sensational press coverage is responsible for such reactions. There
seems to be a tinge of the "if you don't like the message then shoot
the messenger" syndrome present, combined with the subtleties of church
"politics" and policies.
PRESS AWARENESS NEEDED
Be that as it may the press should be aware of how
the subjects of their interviews and stories react. We should also be
prepared to listen to their criticism without dismissing it with a
knee-jerk reaction. In Halifax for the General Council, Dr.
Smith was pleased to be asked to express his comments on media
coverage. He stressed he was speaking only for himself. "I think
newspapers have a serious problem here, that in their need to sell
papers and use headlines to do it, there's again and again a
discrepancy between the headline and the story that makes the paper
dishonest, although not the reporter. That makes it very difficult for
people like me to grant interviews to reporters ... As a matter of fact
to show how persistent a bad story is, the current issue of Hustler has a story
in it and it can only be the Canadian
Press pickup because I read it and it's practically
identical with the CP
"I also found there were some forms of the media,
for instance one Edmonton paper is related to a particular religious
group but their journalist ... did not declare her bias. I think that was unfair ... And I had a number of
reporters who were always trying to lead me to say things that weren't
so. But people like Horgan and Harpur were certainly not so, they just
wanted to know what the facts were.
"... We then ran into the problem of course that
people read headlines, get upset and don't read further than that, and
that's a problem the press and we all have, like how to read..."
Dr. Smith related an incident in which an editor
of one paper wrote an editorial "in which on five major points he was
factually in error, I. think, in my judgement. It was very damaging to
us in the area." Eventually he and the editor met, and entered into
correspondence after Smith had written a letter analyzing the
editorial. "Here's part of the dilemma for me dealing with the media:
he (the editor) in order to make amends to some degree wanted to
publish excerpts from my correspondence ... On the one hand I thought
it would exonerate me, on the other hand I felt it would simply stir up
the issue all over again. So I reluctantly decided not to give him
permission, because I did not want the fuss stirred up again in an area
where it had been very strong.
"This raises a dilemma for me. This all comes down
to one question at the point where we decided that I should grant the
interviews with the media. The Star
and the Globe
were saying to us, Look we'll get it soon; we'll handle it our own way.
Do you want that to happen or do you want to share it with us so that
you're interpreting it with us and to us? So we decided to share it
with them, because we do try to be an open church. But I am left with a
dilemma, that I will never know whether more damage was done than ...
good. Tom Harpur still argues, Well you gave an interview to the
(United Church) Observer.
You had it there: it was clear nobody read it, but it sure got read
through the Star;
isn't that what you really want? To which my answer is, Yes if people
had read your story, but not when they read only the headline.
CREDIBILITY AT ISSUE
"So I'm left you see the argument as to whether
it's really in our interest to be open with the media, and I want to
believe that it is, and I normally believe that it is, but this
experience would convince me the other way. I'm trying not to think
that right now. I just do not want to think that. I really want to
co-operate. But you know if we cannot have a certain degree of
credibility with each other, then I've got problems. And as we said in
Council I think that's the issue, how credible is the press. And in the
church's eyes right now the press is not credible. I think that's a
"I would want to make a distinction, as far as
quite a number of reporters go, quite a number, not by any means all,
but I could name reporters across the country whom I would trust
completely. What I do not trust is the media as a business, the way in
which in order to stay alive and ocmpete with each other and with the
electronic media they do things like using the kind of headlines they
do. So I would say to the publishers, until you use an honest form of
reporting through headlines how can you expect us to trust you? ... We
need a free press, but we don't have a free press right now. We have a
press that's controlled by publishers for the sake of profit ... and I
think that is grossly wrong. Sure they've got to make a profit. But I
think it can be done with integrity and I think there's no integrity in
that kind of way of doing it. And I wish you'd quote me."
Amirault is a Halifax freelancer.
Published in Sources Winter 1980/81
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