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Great Moments in Journalism: How the Media Botched the Trump v. Pope Story

Pope Francis in airplane press conference

©POOL-OR/CATHOLIC PRESSPHOTO

Deacon Greg Kandra - published on 02/27/16

It all comes down to one little letter.

Here’s an excellent analysis, from the Columbia Journalism Review: 

It’s worth reading the question and response in full. The pope’s ambiguity comes down to the fact that “Christian” in English is both an adjective and a noun. Was the pope saying Trump is not a Christian or Trump’s behavior is not Christian? The latter, as an adjective, is a stern rebuke. The former, as a noun, challenges the validity of Trump’s claim to the faith. It distantly echoes excommunication. Even from a pope, the appearance of condemning someone as not (a) Christian is striking. Questioning that person’s understanding of Christian teaching, on the other hand, though perhaps still open to debate, is hardly incendiary. It’s difficult to make the case, for instance, that getting married three times is “in the Gospel.” No matter the interpretation, a stern message from the pope about a presidential candidate is undoubtedly big news. But in a rush to make that news maximally inflammatory, media mishandled the pope’s statement in five key ways.
  1. News reports across the board presumed the noun reading, the one that would call Trump’s faith into question. To make this version more explicit, one would add an “a” before “Christian.” In fact, broadcasters did just that. Sean Hannity of Fox News previewed a segment in Thursday night’s program: “Donald Trump responds to the pope saying he is not a Christian.” The ambiguity inherent in the statement was never acknowledged, nor was the context of the pope’s comment. The troublesome “a” was used repeatedly that night. One guest, Evangelical leader and Trump advocate Jerry Falwell, Jr., said, unchecked, “I think the pope is confusing people by asking, Is this person a Christian, or Is that person a Christian?” Interviewing Vice President Joe Biden, MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow twice inserted an “a” in reference to the pope’s statement.
  2.  Although print outlets surveyed didn’t go so far as to embellish the pope’s statement into “a Christian,” many advanced that interpretation, underscored by excessive paraphrasing. That popular interpretation played right into Trump’s messaging and media strategy.

Read it all.  The conclusion:

The pope’s statement can be read multiple ways, but most news reports present a single, simplistic, sensationalist takeaway. Francis’ cooperation with journalists reflects good faith, and it wasn’t reciprocated.
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