Press: Lead us not into this profit-driven churnalism

14 June 2019

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THE Daily Express, the Daily Mail, The Sun, the Evening Standard, Fox News, USA Today, and even The Guardian, among many others, all reported that the Pope had “changed the wording of the Lord’s Prayer” so that it no longer asked God not to lead us into temptation, but not to let us fall into temptation.

As the Express headline had it: “Pope Francis sparks outrage as he CHANGES Lord’s Prayer to shift responsibility to SATAN”, with the subhead “POPE Francis’ huge change to the centuries-old Lord’s Prayer has sparked fury among worshippers.”

There was only one snag, which appeared 12 paragraphs into The Guardian’s story and hardly anywhere else at all. The change applies only to the Italian translation, and will have no effect on English-speaking Roman Catholics. The Sun, for instance, glossed the difficulty like this: “The amended phrase will be used in a revised third edition of the Italian Missal — a book which includes all the texts for the celebration of Mass in the Catholic Church.

“This means the change will not directly affect Anglicans or Protestants as they have separate texts.”

It’s enough to make you wonder whether even the writer realises that foreigners speak different languages. US audiences are even less familiar with the idea that Jesus didn’t always preach in English. The President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, the Revd Albert Mohler, Jr., was widely quoted after The New York Times rang him up: “I was shocked and appalled. This is the Lord’s Prayer. It is not, and has never been, the pope’s prayer, and we have the very words of Jesus in the New Testament. It is those very words that the pope proposes to change. It is not only deeply problematic, it’s almost breathtaking.”

Savour once more his job description. Mr Mohler runs a seminary, a place where people are meant to study the Gospels in the original. As The New York Times helpfully pointed out lower down the story: “Through the centuries, the short prayer has been translated from Aramaic — the language Jesus spoke — to Greek and to Latin and to other languages.”

The paper also explained that several Francophone bishops’ conferences and even the United Protestant Church of France had already introduced a similar change in translation. Although the Express did lift Mr Mohler’s quote, I don’t think that the reporter can have read far enough down the story to discover this further suggestion of satanic involvement.

Tracing stories like this back across the web is a depressing experience. It becomes obvious how often the same — bad — sources are copied and pasted (for instance, most reports of the Mohler quote credit it to The Seattle Times, whose site is clear that it is just republishing a New York Times story), and how very few efforts anyone made to check if the story actually meant what it appeared to mean.

All the pressures of an attention economy are set up to drive that sort of churnalism, though. It’s not just the need for speed that drives people to skip checks. On the web, the only stories that really pay for themselves in terms of advertising are those that go viral. Some stories will become hugely popular, while others, outwardly very similar, will do nothing at all. So, spoiling a story with facts is a constant danger, and not one that many people can afford to laugh about.

 

MEDIAPART, a French media site, carried a heartfelt obituary of Arnaud Dubus, a French journalist in Bangkok, who recently committed suicide after economic pressure forced him to leave the profession and go into PR. He was an experienced and accomplished journalist, a fluent Thai speaker, and was widely respected — and completely unable to make a living. The obituary describes how “the story pitches he sent to newspapers were often left unanswered. During annual visits to his employers’ offices in Paris, he felt that some editors barely acknowledged him — a middle-age exiled reporter, skinny, discreet and modest, writing about an exotic part of the world few media still care about. . .

“Let’s briefly talk numbers: international newspapers today pay less than 100 US$ for a short 250 words article, around 700 US$ for a longer piece that will require a week’s research, field work and writing. This rate has not increased in the past fifteen years. If one has to pay one’s own expenses including hotels, transportation, translators (Arnaud spoke and read Thai, unlike most foreign journalists in the country), reporting is no longer financially viable.”

Against that background, imagine that you have to choose between two ways of selling a story: “This Sunday, the Catholic churches in France will use a slightly changed translation of the Lord’s Prayer”, or “Pope Francis sparks outrage as he CHANGES Lord’s Prayer to shift responsibility to SATAN” — which would you honestly choose?

There is one further twist to the way in which this story developed: it was not the Rome correspondents who had to pitch the story — partly because so few of them are left. The only two papers to report it in its proper proportion, as an Italian story, were also the only two that put a Rome correspondent among the names in their byline.

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