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.
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/ ↩
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 ↩
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.” ↩