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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 charged.

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.

A Canadian 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 privately.


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 General Council.

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 journalist.

Canadian 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."


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."

Since CP 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."


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.


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 story...

"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.


"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 pity ...

"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."

Peggy Amirault is a Halifax freelancer.


Published in Sources Winter 1980/81


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