Monday, July 21, 2008

Thank you, Reverend Freep

Even as the AP is sticking its toe in the water of letting reporters call 'em like they see 'em, the local centerpiece gives us an example of the Virtues of Objectivity -- particularly, why reporters need to understand the difference between an empirical truth that might sound a little harsh (Candidate A lied about his experience) and a value judgment (Candidate A is a blight on every tradition this country holds dear). Take it away, Reverend Freep:

For years, worshippers at St. Andrew's Episcopal Church in Livonia patiently put up with their diocese as it adopted a series of liberal changes that clashed with biblical tradition. But the breaking point came in 2003, when the Episcopal Church -- with the approval of the local diocese -- consecrated an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire.

See why it's a bad idea for a corporeal newspaper to take sides in a supernatural dispute? What any particular bit of holy writ "says" is pretty easy to figure out. Some have more competing versions, or more translations, than others, but that's why we have operational definitions: Once you've defined "holy writ" as "the edition the Grand Inquisitor is waving at the jury during my trial," it's just a matter of looking stuff up.

"Biblical tradition" is a different matter -- sort of like the difference between "my neighbor has a Toyota in her driveway" and "my neighbor's values aren't American values." You're determining not just what the text says, but which interpretation of the text corresponds with "tradition" and "values." And journalists need, really badly, not to go there.

Does that mean adjectives and judgments are always bad? No. It means writers -- and editors -- need to understand the difference between adjectives that describe empirical conditions ("red" being a particular part of the visible spectrum) and ones that require theological judgments ("heretical" not being too far from "clashed with biblical tradition"). It means being able to tell "the candidate contradicted herself" from "the candidate doesn't stand for America." Not as hard as it looks, is it?

Grammar sidelight. A note from a regular visitor addresses this sentence in the sidebar:
Who won't be there: About 200 conservative bishops are boycotting the conference, led by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams.

Followed, a sentence later, by:
His words will be closely listened to during this conference.

"They will?" asks our correspondent. "You just told me he was leading the boycott!" As, indeed we did -- or appear to have, given the squinting nature of the reduced relative clause beginning with "led by."

I was a little puzzled at first, because that's not the phrasing in the sidebar I saw, either in print or online, in which this bullet point:
  • Who won't be there: About 200 conservative bishops are boycotting the conference.

follows the Williams graf. I think, after a bit of checking, that this is a case of hastiness to get stuff on the wire. Somebody at the Freep sent the story on to the McClatchy-Trib service before it went through the local copydesk.* Given that both versions (the one I saw and the one Garrett saw) are archived at Lexis-Nexis already,** the wire might even have shipped a correction, which at least some outfits ignored.

There are a few other signs of editing in the print version here, compared with the wire version. On the wire, you'll find a reference to the "fundamental questions" at stake, among them:

Is pre martial sex OK?

By the time the story saw print at home, some alert editor had quickly fixed the appalling violation of prefix style:

Is premartial sex OK?

Overlooking, alas, the larger issue. "Premartial" sex has been with us since, like, Lysistrata. The kind of sex that Reverend Freep wants to warn us against is "premarital." Reading the stylebook is nice. It isn't a substitute for reading the story.

* That doesn't mean it wasn't "edited"; it means it didn't get all the levels of editing that have been customary at middling-competent newspapers for the past hundred years or so. That standard is changing pretty quickly
** Dated Sunday, suggesting that it's a wire rather than a printed version.


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