Vatican announcement

Review from the Office of the Ombudsman | English Services

Summary

Report about an announcement from the Vatican which included new language concerning the ordination of women

You wrote initially in July, 2010, to complain about an item carried in the regional newscast heard within the program Ontario Morning. On the 6:30 a.m. edition of the newscast, reporter Gary Ennet did an item relating to a recent announcement from the Vatican concerning revisions to the Canon Law of the Roman Catholic Church. In the announcement, the Vatican laid out new and tougher language on several issues, including sex abuse by priests and on the ordination of women.

The latter topic was the focus of the story, with three voices commenting on the Church’s new language equating the ordination of women with the most serious of crimes against Church law.

You referred to the three as “dissident feminists” and said that “it is unfortunate and unfair that the CBC continues to feature the feminist voice.” You also said that you were “heartened that the ruling against female ordination is mentioned. Female clergy would not solve anything and the last thing I want is a bunch of angry feminists railing from the pulpit.”

Sophia Hadzipetros, the Managing Editor of English Radio News in Ontario, responded. She noted that the three women heard in the story were all Roman Catholic and all, she said, “were closely associated with the church.” She cited the backgrounds of the three— a lecturer in Church history and two members of Roman Catholic religious orders.

Ms. Hadzipetros went on to acknowledge that CBC policy calls for “balance” in coverage—offering differing points of view. But she added that “balance does not, for instance, mean that every voice critical of the church’s decision must be immediately juxtaposed with an equally strong voice approving of it.” She wrote that “the important thing is to ensure that differing points of view are treated in an equitable manner.” She concluded by saying that “they were here. Other CBC News and current affairs stories that day carried different points of view, some focusing—as you suggested they should— on the changes to the law concerning sexual abuse.”

You were unsatisfied with the response and requested a review.


At the risk of repetition, I will repeat here the three basic principles on which CBC Journalism should be based:

Accuracy
The information conforms with reality and is not in any way misleading or false. This demands not only careful and thorough research but a disciplined use of language and production techniques, including visuals.

Integrity
The information is truthful, not distorted to justify a conclusion. Broadcasters do not take advantage of their power to present a personal bias.

Fairness
The information reports or reflects equitably the relevant facts and significant points of view; it deals fairly and ethically with persons, institutions, issues and events.

Application of these principles will achieve the optimum objectivity and balance that must characterize the CBC’s information programs.

The last item, Fairness, would appear to be the operative principle in this case.

Ms. Hadzipetros is undoubtedly correct when she says that it is not always necessary or desirable to have an immediate and mathematically equivalent response in a single item to given issue. The fairness of the story has to be judged in a broader context, taking into consideration the nature of the broadcast (in this case, a newscast, as opposed to a longer Current Affairs program), the nature of the story and the likelihood that a listener will receive an appropriate exposure of varying points of view in relevant time periods.

Some stories saturate the schedule: almost all CBC Information programs cover them in various ways at various times. Other stories appear, are dealt with as formats dictate and then do not re-appear soon, if ever. Individual items must be judged on their own nature and merits.

So, in a way, this is a fairly simple matter: the item provided no real context on the issue, just a statement that the Church had issued new language concerning female priests with three voices who all appear to be dissenting from that view.

While it may be true that some other arm of the CBC might have given lengthier treatment to the issue, neither the morning newscast, nor Ontario Morning provided anything like an explanation of the reasoning behind the Church’s decision, or a defense thereof. Whatever one’s view of the issue, it would have provided a listener with appropriate context in order to form a view of the matter. I note that in the time period, neither the national newscast nor the Ontario Morning program dealt with this specific aspect of the issue.

In this case, it does not seem reasonable to cite the whole CBC News and Current Affairs schedule as justification for not providing basic context in the item itself. Having decided to concentrate on the ordination issue, a reasonable choice, programmers should have made some attempt to reflect the thinking behind the Church’s position.

As for your notion of casting the discussion in terms of “a bunch of angry feminists” vs established Church doctrine, I find that quite disturbing. In the interests of “full disclosure” I should note that I am the product of Catholic parochial education and of Georgetown University. I have been involved with the Church in one way or another for all of my 66 years. I am quite familiar with both Church history and the views of people, men and women, who sometimes take issue with some proclamations of Canon Law. The idea that the carefully stated views we heard issued from a “bunch of angry feminists” cannot be credited. They appeared to be intelligent, interested and engaged members of the Catholic community. You are certainly free to disagree with their views, but reducing the discussion to the notion that female ordination would merely produce “a bunch of angry feminists railing from the pulpit” is not really conducive to rational debate.

That being said, the CBC, in this case, did not provide adequate information for even an informed listener to understand the Church’s reasoning in this matter.

Conclusion

The item failed to meet the basic standard of fairness in dealing with the issue, and failed the listener in not supplying context.

Vince Carlin
CBC Ombudsman