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Current Issues, Editorial

The Aquila Report: News or Opinion?

 

For many people, the jury is still out on whether the internet (and particularly the blogosphere) is helping or hindering the life of the PCA. While Vintage 73 might be pointed to as an example of a site which sometimes causes division–ahem, “let’s spilt the PCA“–our attempt with this site has been to communicate opinions with a spirit of charity. But let’s be honest, Vintage 73 is a small fry. We don’t write that much, and don’t get nearly the traffic that some of the other PCA blogs do. Without knowing the specifics, I’d wager that the Aquila Report, a split from Byfaith (led by Dominic Aquila, Don Clements, and Douglas Vos1) is definitely at the top of the heap of influential blog sites in the PCA.

Now, no one will be shocked to learn that I don’t always agree with all the material put up on the Aquila Report. But, in many ways I’ve felt that the Aquila Report was moving in the right direction. They removed the commenting section from their site, and have moved to aggregating more of their content than writing it.

Despite the many positive steps made by the staff of the Aquila Report, I am continually bothered by two important journalistic issues.

First, they say they are a news site, but seem to ignore widely accepted standards of journalism. Second, while the Aquila Report states that it is a source of “news and opinion”, they seem to have a very difficult time distinguishing the two.

One of the core principles of journalism is that you can’t be the story and write the story.2 Put another way, journalists must avoid even the perception of any conflict of interest when writing a news story. We find conflicts of interests by asking questions like: does the journalist have a relationship with the person they are writing about? Does the journalist have a stake in the outcome of a topic they are covering? Could the journalist be seen to be favoring a certain side because of personal interests?

In the last two months I have seen several stories which have forced me to ask one or more of these questions about the Aquila Report. One such article was written by TE Clements. TE Clements does acknowledge that he was a voting member of the committee he was reporting on, but why couldn’t someone else make the report? A second question about the same article is–why the odd choice of saying over and over again “Rocky Mountain TE” instead of “TE Dominic Aquila”?3 I can’t help but think that part of the reason has to do with the fact that the TE Aquila is the Editor in Chief of the Aquila report, and the site bears his name. According to the Society of Professional Journalists, Reporters are called to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”4 Wouldn’t it be a no-brainer that Christian news organizations would exceed standards of ethics established by non-Christian journalist?

I am also confused by the overlap between news and opinions on the Aquila Report. Time and time again, the line between news and opinion is blurred. There are no apparent reasons why some articles are filed under “News” and why others are labeled “Opinion”. Andy Webb’s open letter 5 to the National Partnership is filed under News, while Bob Mattes’s post on the same topic is in the Opinion section. TE Clements wrote an article under the News section where he admits that he is writing his opinion about a topic in which he is personally invested. The end result is that members of local congregations in the PCA go to the Aquila Report to find news, and are instead handed the opinions of a small group of contributors, under the label of news.

Of course in the church, when we take time to write about something, we are going to be invested, but shouldn’t we then strive to make sure that any reader can clearly distinguish between an opinion piece and a news article? The Aquila Report has done a good job of reporting on daily news about the PCA, but this good work is partially undone when polemic is filed under news.

Now the guys over at the Aquila Report aren’t monsters and I’m not willing to insinuate that there is anything nefarious going on.
I hope that they take my concerns to heart, but I understand that they might not. It seems like they have two ways to move forward. Either their reporters need to follow established journalistic strands which avoid and disclose any potential conflicts of interest. Or they need to be up front about the personal and polemic nature of the their site.

Photo Credit: Madison Guy via Compfight cc


  1. http://theaquilareport.com/leadership/ 
  2. The NYU School of Journalism makes the following warning about potential conflicts of interest, “Most newspapers bar reporters from writing about, or including quotes from friends or family members, although there may be some exceptions, if the reporter is open about it. In an autobiography or memoir, obviously it is fine. Even here, however, there is an obligation: the writer should be transparent and stipulate the relationship, whatever form that may take. When a reporter is sent out to sample opinion or find an expert, those sources should not be relations, unless the journalist can honestly claim the relationship won’t sway what he writes one way or the other. In other words, would the reporter pull punches because he’s a friend of the source? That’s why it is usually a good idea to stay clear of using friends and relatives in articles in most instances.” http://journalism.nyu.edu/publishing/ethics-handbook/potential-conflicts-of-interest/ 
  3. Notice in the article that TE Fred Greco is named and then referenced repeatedly as “TE Fred Greco.” Where TE Dominic Aquila is mention but then repeatedly referred to as “Rocky Mountain TE”
    http://pages.citebite.com/g1p2y9q8x9sqe 
  4. http://pages.citebite.com/o1r2u9n9c1wnq, http://pages.citebite.com/w1y2c9r9g7oia 
  5. Wherein TE Webb omits his previous work to establish a closed group, with the established purpose of “discussing whether we should remain in the denomination, leave for another denomination, or form a new denomination.” 
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  • http://www.facebook.com/metokos Don K. Clements

    Sam – I’m on my way out the door for meetings today, but let me at least say that this is a very thoughtful and very helpful discussion. I will write more detail later, but you have made some valid, critical points – including at least part of what you say about my own story. I want to give some time to a thorough reply, so that will most likely happen tomorrow. Thanks again for taking this approach.

    • bggjr

      Don,

      Another question I have that concerns these series of features.

      Why did Andy Webb not disclose his own group, PCA Conservatives (http://groups.yahoo.com/group/pcaconservatives/) that is, technically, secret? It has the expressed purpose of “discussing whether we should remain in the
      denomination, leave for another denomination, or form a new
      denomination.”

      To me, that seems worthy of inclusion in an editorial decrying the existence of secret groups, particularly given this direct quote in the article, “First, I want you to know what the position of the conservatives really
      is: we have no organizations, no meetings, no leadership, and no agreed
      upon agenda.”

      Thanks.

    • sdesocio

      Thanks Don – like I said in the article I’m not trying to demonize you guys, but I wanted bring attention to what I perceived to be a dangerous ambiguity.

  • Rachel Miller

    Hi Sam~ Just a quick reply to ask that you correct your story. Andy Webb’s open letter, Bob Mattes reply, and Tom Cannon’s article are all three categorized as “Opinion” pieces, and have been since they first ran.
    Thanks,
    Rachel Miller
    News Editor, The Aquila Report

    • Rachel Miller

      Sam~ As far as I can tell you haven’t fixed the article.

    • sdesocio

      Thanks Rachel – I hope you can see that the critique of the overlap is still valid. When I read the Webb letter all I see was that it is “featured”.

    • Rachel Miller

      Sam,
      All articles are “Featured.” That means they appear on the home page. Each article has a second designation such as Opinion or Church news. All three replies to the NP letter are coded “Opinion.” To see the Opinion pieces simply click the Opinion and Commentary header link.

  • http://www.facebook.com/andrewjwebb Andy Webb

    The idea that the PCA Conservatives EMAIL GROUP is in anyway analogous to the NP is absurd. First, it’s an email list, there is no leadership, no docket, no meetings, and the stated purposes of the group are absolutely different from the NP. We are not out to affect votes, or set the agenda for the PCA. As a matter of fact we start out by saying we CAN’T and WON’T do that. The group introduction itself says:

    “This group is for Conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA)
    Teaching and Ruling Elders concerned about the leftward drift in the
    denomination who are interested in discussing whether we should remain
    in the denomination, leave for another denomination, or form a new
    denomination.

    Please note that if you join this group, you MUST introduce yourself and
    tell us which congregation or institution you are affiliated with.

    Please also note that this group is NOT for discussing or making plans
    for the future of the PCA, as conservatives clearly cannot affect that
    in any meaningful way. It is merely for discussing our future and that
    of our congregations.”

    Tell you what though, if I delete the group from Yahoogroups, will you announce that fact and then encourage George Robertson and James Kessler to shut down the National Partnership. Because I’d agree to that in a heartbeat.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=5203564 Ethan Smith

    Sam,

    I’ve been sharing your exact same thoughts. I’ve really enjoyed TAR for the past year or so (when I first came across it), but have recently had the feeling like they are now simply pushing their agenda. Regardless of where they stand on the PCA spectrum, I’ve always appreciated that they report different sides to a story. Doesn’t seem like they are doing much of that lately.

  • Joel Linton

    Dear Sam, I would like to hear your analysis of ByFaith along the same lines of you have done here. I have been quite discouraged by the way reporting was done there, e.g. during to the AC Funding Plan process a few years back, the silence on presbytery opposition votes to the plan seemed pretty loud. As I remember, the one time that it was reported happened to be a time when two of the presbyteries voted for the plan and one against … whether intentional or not implying that there was more support than their actually was. While usually in the news cycle you would have e.g. four presbyteries voting against and none for.

  • Lou

    Sam, great piece. On additional comment and observation. You wrote that “the guys over at the Aquila Report aren’t monsters”, but if I’m not mistaken, the “guys” aren’t really aggregating this stuff or doing most of the editorial decision making.

    Just like ByFaith, Aquila Report’s day to day operations are handled by women serving in editorial roles.

    Now, I’m a big advocate of WIC and women’s ministry, but I am very concerned about the lack of oversight of the editorial decisions at the Aquila Report. A great deal of the aggregation of writing is absolutely done with a particular ax to grind and an agenda to push. There should be better oversight and discernment in the selection of articles, many of which merit being filed as “gossip” or divisive” and not included at all.

    Don’t worry, I’m equally dismayed at the editorial decisions over at ByFaith, They seem to be unaware of the harm being done by some of the culturally “edgy” things they promote, as well as the types of content they deliberately omit from the publication, such as pro-traditional reformed ecclessiology, as just one example.

    Bottom line, the female editors of both sites need better oversight, imo. Thanks.