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Church Scandals And News Placement

Aug 19, 2002 | The San Diego Union-Tribune

Both stories were about members of the clergy accused of sexually molesting young members of their churches. One appeared on the front page; the other appeared on the cover of the local section. Why the disparity? Did how the stories were displayed show the newspaper's bias against one religion?

Last month, an article about a Catholic priest, the late Monsignor William Armstrong Kraft, appeared on a Sunday on A-1 of The San Diego Union-Tribune. It told about an alleged victim who, with Bishop Robert Brom at his side, confronted the monsignor the month before his death. While the clergyman remembered the man, once a parishioner, he said he had no memory of the abuse, according to the article. However, he said he was sorry if he had harmed him.

Tuesday, an article about Michael Skoor, the former senior pastor of a Solana Beach Lutheran church, appeared on the cover of the local section and said he had pled guilty to molesting an 11-year-old boy and trying to do the same to the boy's brother.

Why, in the judgment of editors of The San Diego Union-Tribune, did the article about accusations against the Catholic monsignor who was not charged criminally belong on the front page but not the story about the former Lutheran pastor who faces prison for his admitted wrongdoing?

The reasons go to the very essence of news judgment that determines where stories appear throughout the paper.

Some readers thought the story about the pastor should have been on the front page in view of other articles about pedophiles in the Catholic Church. But, in the judgment of journalists, those two stories are not equal, even though one man is dead and the other is facing 20 to 30 years in prison. Some of it is because the story about the monsignor involves the Catholic Church, but not for the reasons those who suspect bias may think.

Unlike the Catholic Church, there is no scandal about pedophiles in the Lutheran Church. The scandal for the Catholics is that some say there was a cover-up about pedophile priests that went on for decades. The story about the monsignor told of how accusations against him had been dismissed by the previous bishop but confronted by Brom who took the steps necessary to keep him away from children. It also pointed out his alleged victims continue to suffer because of the abuse.

The story about the monsignor was not the first front-page article about the scandal. It has been the topic of numerous A-1 stories since the scope of the problem and reports about numerous victims have come to light. No doubt, it isn't the last time stories about the scandal will appear on the Union-Tribune front page.

On the other hand, the former Lutheran pastor has resigned from the Calvary Lutheran Church and from the clergy. An article in July pointed out that leaders of the church, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the church's Pacific Synod acted quickly.

That is far from the case in the scandal involving the Catholic clergy, as has been documented in numerous news stories.

No one wants to read about clergy who abuse the public trust. We all would rather it didn't happen. But it did, and it's up to the media to shed light to help put an end to the abuse.

That front-page headline last Monday with the story about Steven Hatfill, a germ weapons expert who went public to deny he has any involvement with the deadly anthrax attacks, said it all: "Scientist hits back, denies anthrax role."

It was the first time his name had been mentioned on the front page of the Union-Tribune. An article on A-2 the following day said the FBI was unwilling to clear Hatfill and continued to identify him not as a suspect, but as a "person of interest." Other articles about Hatfill also have appeared on A-2.

Although he may have not gotten front-page treatment in the Union-Tribune and other newspapers on another day, Hatfill no doubt would have had the attention of the media no matter when he went public with his denial. Although he is among 30 people under scrutiny, his name is the only one that has surfaced.

But in this case, his timing – or that of his advisers – was particularly astute. Could it be happenstance the press conference was called on a Sunday, notoriously a slow news day?

As it was, Hatfill shared the top half of the front page with a story about US Airways filing for bankruptcy protection. Three other articles appeared on the front page, none of them breaking news, which means they could have appeared on another day.

No matter what happens in the anthrax investigation, Hatfill skillfully used the very media that made his name public to fight back.

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