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"Singles Sex not always wrong"

By Barrie Zwicker


From thoughtful 101-page study to flip stereotype. This is a fair description of the transformation that In God's Image . . . Male and Female underwent on its way through journalistic gatekeeping and filtering processes to most Canadian newspaper readers' eyes.

The first story about the report in the commercial mainline media was written by Toronto Star religion editor Tom Harpur. It was the red banner on March 17, 1980. Six column inches ran on front. It jumped to page two where another 13 column inches (all in the Star's 14-pica measure) were printed, topped by a two-column-by-7 1/4-inch-deep photo of Rev. Smith.

Harpur's story was based on the first major interview with Smith. The report was being physically withheld at that point from all except those for whom it had been prepared—the commissioners (elected representatives) to the United Church's then coming General Council (see main story).

Nevertheless, a reading of the report shows the Harpur story captured many of its key points. As importantly, Harpur's story got across much of the tone of the report, such as its tentativeness and non-authoritarian approach.

(Attitudes that infuse the report, as a matter of fact, are gentleness and caring. In none of the 24 press reports and one cartoon Content saw from across the country—covering the period March 17-June 16—was there a hint that the report was so infused.)

The person who wrote the head for Harpur's story ("Singles sex not always wrong—church report") was factual and captured the non-authoritarian and tentative tones. Smith and others closely involved with the controversy have appraised the Star's handling as fair and accurate (see main story).

Harpur's lede read:

A United Church task force on human sexuality says sexual intercourse may be right for singles under certain circumstances.

Harpur's fifth para quoted Smith as saying the church should "stress an 'honest and strong intention of faithfulness' within marriage rather than being over-anxious about total 'sexual exclusivity'."

The lede of the Canadian Press rewrite of Harpur read:

Toronto (CP)—A report by the United Church on sexual ethics says sex between singles can be right under certain circumstances, that homosexuals should be admitted to the ministry and that married couples need not worry about complete faithfulness.

The sixth para of the CP story used the quote from Harpur's fifth para.

But note CP had the report as a church document. It had the task force's tentative observation about faithfulness as couple's not "needing to worry" about complete faithfulness. And it had it that sex for singles "can" be right, rather than the Star's "may" be right.

The CP version ran in the Saskatoon Star-Phoenix under the head:

Church study backs singles sex.

The lede of the Hamilton Spectator's re-write of the CP re-write went:

Toronto (CP)—Married couples need not worry about complete faithfulness, says a United Church of Canada report on sexual ethics.

Which is some Spec rewrite man's pulling what he thinks is the lede from some CP rewrite man's story in which he pulled what he thought was the lede from what Harpur wrote which included what he thought the lede should be.

The Spec's head was:

A bit of adultery fine,
says report.

United Press Canada put out a much better version of the Star's story, judged by the criteria of accuracy (not changing "may" to "can," for instance) and fairness (for example not omitting "details" such as the origin of the report).

The lede of the UPC version read:

Toronto (UPC)—Pre-marital sex, ordination of homosexuals and
masturbation have all received limited approbation in a discussion
paper scheduled for submission to the United Church of Canada.

Nevertheless, someone at the Ottawa Citizen managed to headline this:

Church report
takes wide-open
approach to sex

This is a process of distortion. Part of it is ensured by the normal practices of journalism. But journalism does not practice itself; the value systems in the minds of the practitioners are subtly imposed to further the distortive process.

The gist of the report, as it becomes more and more condensed, is truncated into a mis-statement of the gist. The tone of the report is given a half barrel roll to come out as simplistic and authoritarian, whereas it is in fact pluralistic and non-authoritarian.

In a word, the newspaper reports become essentially, the opposite of the truth.

In sex, it's called perversion.


Published in Sources Winter 1980-81


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