Wednesday, August 04, 2004

Updating an old old blog.

Monday, April 28, 2003

(The following is my core area proposal for my doctoral program in criminal justice at Rutgers University-Newark.It's posted because, shockingly enough, a few people want to see what it is I've been tearing my hair out over. It seems innocuous enough, doesn't it?)

Media and the social construction of crime and policing:
Process and Effect

A Core Area Proposal

By Susanna L. Cornett
School of Criminal Justice
Rutgers University - Newark
April 2003

In a society as complex as the United States, determining whether you have a clear image of any aspect of the society is a difficult task. Even those segments of society to which you belong – parent, physician, teacher, police officer, Indian, African-American, Jew, Muslim, Southerner, Californian – will have areas you don’t understand, or even necessarily know about. Against this backdrop of complexities, the modern media performs the task of bringing us the news – in essence, telling us what is happening in many parts of society, at best forming a mirror that records and reflects back to us what things are interesting, important, curious, compelling or urgently wrong with our society.

But given that each individual does not necessarily have a complete picture of even his own context, how does the media give context to our society in an objective, consistent, accurate and fair way? The media itself is formed of individuals, each with his or her own context, interjecting themselves into events and situations to observe, record and often examine analytically what is happening. What impact does that have on the eventual production of news? And specifically, in this overview, how does this entity called “the media” present police work and police officers, what influence does the police itself have on that presentation of reality, and does the public actually respond to external input from both sources or do they form opinions based on personal experience and associations with others with personal experience?

The discussion must begin with a look at whether in fact the media constructs news, as opposed to presenting it non-selectively and neutrally. A number of studies have found that in fact journalists do select among possible options, and tend to favor crime stories. Graber (1979) found that the level of crime reporting in the Chicago Tribune and major TV news networks was much greater than its sociological importance; Ericson, Baranek and Chan (1991) discovered that just under 50 percent of news items in both “quality” and “popular” news media in Toronto were on crime, law and justice topics. Several researchers (Ericson, Baranek and Chan, 1987; Barak, 1994; Chermak, 1994; Cavendar and Mulcahy, 1998) suggest that journalists bring a frame to both their selection of topics and their coverage – that is, they already have a conception of what the story is about before they begin covering it, and thus may miss some aspects of a situation which would give their readers a more accurate understanding.

Certainly given the vast range of available information, it’s not surprising that journalists narrow the options by exercising judgment on what is news. But is there evidence of bias in topic selection or coverage frame – that journalists are responding to internal biases or external pressures in shaping their eventual news product? One of the strongest indications of this in the literature has to do with journalists using the frames as mentioned above – essentially shaping the news to fit a preconceived notion or need. Sometimes this fits a need of the organization - in his seminal work, Crime Waves As Ideology, Mark Fishman (1978) tracked how a “crime wave” of attacks against the elderly was constructed by news media in a slow news cycle, when in fact actual crimes against the elderly did not change significantly from levels prior to and following the reported “crime wave”. More recently, this entertainment imperative of the media – the need to increase audience and thus increase revenues – has been observed by Graber (1980); Surette (1998) and Lipschultz and Hilt (2002). However, a number of other frames – which some term “biases” – have been identified by researchers in criminal justice. Tunnel (1995) sees silencing of the left by “the dominant culture of corporate media”; Perrone and Chesney-Lind found a tendency to refer to Hawaiian juvenile delinquents as “gangs” disproportionate to the gang problem; Baer and Chambliss (1997) identified what they saw as a “systematic” effort by media, government agencies and social scientists to perpetuate a myth of “crime out of control”. And there are others in academia, politics and media itself who have identified systematic selection bias as a problem.

The media process does not begin with the media – it begins with events and situations that have the potential to be news. That again can trigger a complex interaction between subject, stakeholders and journalists, determining how (or whether) those events or situations come to the attention of the media, and how they are presented either initially or in subsequent contacts with journalists (Sherizen, 1978). In fact, the interaction has been called a symbiosis (Crandon and Dunne, 1997; Osborne, 1995). The media depend heavily on police sources for their information (Chermak, 1998; Fishman, 1981; Schlesinger and Tumber, 1994), but the police also depend on the media for both image construction and crime solving (Schlesinger and Tumber, 1993; Feist, 1999; Innes, 1999). In recent years, the interaction between police and media has been formalized – especially in larger departments – by the addition of a Public Information Officer (PIO) who handles media requests and interviews (Simmons, 1999; Schlacter and Stewart, 1980; Lovell, 2001).

Given that the media is a foundational means of connecting with the populace – most importantly, the voting public – as a whole, the next important question to ask is this: Does what the media covers and how it is presented have a direct or even indirect influence on shaping public opinion and public policy debate? The findings are mixed – Moy, et al., (1999) didn’t find that the media had a strong effect on public opinion of government institutions, while Surette (1998) suggested that intense media coverage of a notorious crime may make a prosecutor more reluctant to plea bargain in the case – but the consensus seems to be that at the least, the media have an agenda-setting role in the public policy debate and possibly more direct effects (Pritchard, 1986; Etten, 1994; Chermak, 1997).

So to what extent are public views of police affected by the image of police portrayed by the media? Surette (1998: 1) set as the foundational premise of his book, Media, crime and criminal justice: Images and realities, that “people use knowledge they obtain from the media to construct a picture of the world, an image of reality on which they base their actions.” Osborne (1995: 35) put it even more strongly: “It is not too much to suggest that the burgeoning symbiosis between crime and the media redefines the social-psychological understanding of ‘law and order’ and more importantly of its function of social control.” Other researchers had similar findings (Fishman, 1980; Perlmutter, 2000; Lofquist 1997), noting that media coverage of police is increasingly “managed” by police organizations (Ziembo-Vogl, 1998; Lawrence, R. 2002), with some going so far as to institute a marketing model (Schlacter and Stewart, 1980).

The coverage of police and race, with an emphasis on the Cincinnati riots in April 2001 following the shooting death of a black juvenile offender by police, is an example of how the interplay between media and police can work. Various researchers have found that mainstream media were less likely to cover homicides involving blacks (Weiss and Chermak, 1998); media tend to bring a stereotypical frame to coverage of murder when minorities were involved (Conaway, 1999) and reactions of the public to media coverage can vary by race (Wortley, et al, 1997). The coverage of the Cincinnati riots brought out media critics who identified frames and biases from within the profession itself (Ripley, 2001; Leo, 2001; MacDonald, 2001).

A deeper understanding of how the media perform their job, the interplay between internal and external influences, and the impact of media in turn on police and society as a whole, can help media consumers make educated judgments about information in the media. The goal of this core area proposal is to bring together the foundational literature that will foster such an understanding.

1) The media process of social construction

The concept of constructing news assumes that news is not reported as an undifferentiated, observed array of information, but rather proceeds through various filters that shape the final product, including one piece of information while excluding another. This section deals with how it happens and what it means.

Barak, G. (1994) Media, Society, and Criminology. In G. Barak (ed.). Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime. New York, NY: Garland Publishing Inc.
Cavender, G. and Mulcahy, A. (1998) Trial by fire: Media constructions of corporate deviance. Justice Quarterly, 15:4, 697-717.
Chermak, S. (1994) Crime in the News Media: A refined understanding of how crimes become news. In G. Barak (ed.), Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime. New York, NY: Garland Publishing Inc.
Ericson, R., Baranek, P. and Chan, J. (1987) Visualizing deviance: a study of news organization. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 390 p.
Fishman, M. (1978). Crime waves as ideology. Social Problems, 25 (5):531- 543.
Fishman, M. (1980). Manufacturing the News. Austin: University of Texas.
Gans, H. J. (1979) Deciding what’s news : A study of CBS Evening News, NBC Nightly News, Newsweek and Time. New York: Vintage Books.
Graber, D. (1979). Is Crime News Coverage Excessive? Journal of Communication, 29:3, Summer: 81-92.
Kiernan, M. (1997) News reporting and the ideological presumption. Journal of Communication, April.
Molotch, H. and Lester, M. (1974) News as purposive behavior: On the strategic use of routine events, accidents and scandals. American Sociological Review, 39:101-12.
Nelson, T., Clawson, R. and Oxley, Z. (1997) Media framing of a civil liberties conflict and its effect on tolerance. American Political Science Review, September.
Tuchman, G. (1978). Making News: A study in the construction of reality. New York: Free Press.

2) Forces operating on the media: Organizational needs, bias and the entertainment imperative

It’s clear that some constructing of news occurs, but are the filters used to shape the news systematic and biased? And if so, in what direction? Given the complexity of our society and the range of media available, it would likely prove difficult to show an industry-wide ideological bias – a conclusion supported by the readings . However, the majority of media outlets are ultimately businesses, so the need to gain audience and thus market share appears to have led to the broadest systemic influence: the entertainment imperative.

Baer, J. and Chambliss, W. (1997). Generating fear: the politics of crime reporting. Crime Law and Social Change, 27(2): pp. 87-107.
Baylor, T. (1996) Media framing of movement protest: the case of American Indian protest. The Social Science Journal, July.
Benford, R., and Snow, D. (2000). Framing processes and social movements: An overview and assessment. Annual Review of Sociology.
Chermak, S. Body count news: how crime is presented in the news media. Justice Quarterly 11(4) pp 561-582.
Chermak, S. (1993) Interested bystanders: An examination of the presentation of crime victims in the news media and how their involvement in the news production process affects the final news product. Dissertation. SUNY-Albany,
Chermak, S. Predicting crime story salience: the effects of crime, victim and defendant characteristics. Journal of Criminal Justice, 26 (1), pp. 61-70
Chermak, S. (1997) The Presentation of Drugs in the News Media: the news sources involved in the construction of social problems. Justice Quarterly, 14(4): 687-718.
Chermak, S. (1994). Victims in the News: Crime and the American News Media. Boulder: Westview.
Consalvo, M. (1998) ‘3 shot dead in courthouse’ : Examining news coverage of domestic violence and mail-order brides. Women’s Studies in Communication, Fall.
Dunsky, M. (2001) Missing: The bias implicit in the absent. Arab Studies Quarterly, July.
Ericson, R. (ed.). 1995. Crime and the media. Aldershot, UK: Dartmouth 429p.
Ericson, R., Baranek, P. and Chan, J. (1991) Representing order: Crime, law and justice in the news media. Toronto: University of Toronto Press. 1991.
Etten, T. (1994) Gun Control and the Press: A content analysis of newspaper bias. Unpublished master’s thesis.
Etten, T. and Myers, L. (1991) The Subjectivity of Objectivity: A Critical Review of Research on Biased Newspaper Crime Coverage. Unpublished paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology, San Francisco, CA, November 20-23.
Fishman, M. and Cavender, G. (eds.) (1998). Entertaining crime: television reality programs. New York, NY: Aldine DeGruyter.
Goldberg, B. (2002). Bias: A CBS insider exposes how the media distort the news. Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing.
Graber, D.A. (1980). Crime News and the Public. New York: Praeger.
Kidd-Hewitt, D. Crime and the Media: A Criminological Perspective. In D. Kidd-Hewitt and R. Osborne, (eds.) Crime and the media: the post-modern spectacle. London, UK: Pluto Press.
Levite, A. (1996) Bias basics: the data clearly demonstrate that liberal journalists report the news liberally. National Review. September 28.
Lipschultz, J. and Hilt, M. (2002). Crime and Local Television News. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Publishers.
McCormick, C. (ed.) (1995). Constructing danger: The mis/representation of crime in the news. Halifax, CAN: Fernwood Publishing.
McGowan, W. (2001) Coloring the news. San Francisco: Encounter Books.
Perrone, P. and Chesney-Lind, M. (1998). “Media presentations of juvenile crime in Hawaii: wild in the streets?” Crime Trend Series, 6(1): 1-11.
Pritchard, D. and Hughes, K. “Patterns of deviance in crime news.” Journal of Communication, 47(3): 49-67.
Schlesinger, P. Tumber, H., and Murdock, G. (1991) The media politics of crime and criminal justice. British Journal of Sociology, 42, (3), pp. 397-420.
Schlesinger, P. and Tumber, H. (1993) Fighting the war against crime: television, police, and audience. British Journal of Criminology, 33, (1), pp. 19-32.
Sullivan, M.L. and Miller, B. (1999) Adolescent violence, state processes and the local context of moral panic. States And Illegal Practices. Oxford: Berg.
Surette, R. (1998) Media, crime and criminal justice: Images and realities. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing Company.
Sutter, D. (2001) “Can the media be so liberal? The economics of media bias.” Cato Journal, January 1.
Tapscott, M. (2001) “First Person: Journalists must remember that politically incorrect views are entitled to an airing.” American Journalism Review. May 1.
Tunnel, K. (1995). “Silence of the Left: Reflections on critical criminology and criminologists”. Social Justice, Spring 1995.
Welch, M.; Fenwick, M.; and Roberts, M. (1998) “State managers, intellectuals, and the media: A content analysis of ideology in experts’ quotes in feature newspaper articles on crime.” Justice Quarterly, 15(2): 219-241.

3) Police/media interaction: Meeting reciprocal needs

The media has a need to provide news their audience wants to read (or see), and crime has long been a sure draw – creating a corollary need to cultivate police contacts to obtain information about crimes. However, one of media’s roles in society is to serve as a check for government institutions, which on occasion results in an adversarial relationship with police. For their part, police have a legal obligation in the US to reveal crime information that qualifies as public record, a need at times to get information on crimes or enforcement initiatives out to the public, and a desire to manage to the extent possible the message about the police that is getting out to the public. This section is about how the intersection of these needs inform the police-media relationship and, in turn, the information about police and policing that eventually makes it to the public.

Chermak, S.M. (1998) “Police, Courts, and Corrections in the media”. In Bailey and Hale (eds). Popular Culture, Crime & Justice. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.
Chermak, S.M. and Weiss, A. (1999) Identifying Strategies to Market the Police in the News. Final report submitted to United States Department of Justice. National Institute of Justice. Grant #96 – IJ-CX00078.
Crandon, G.L. (1993). “Crime News: Police Press Office – Police Press Perceptions.” The Police Journal, 66:242-255.
Crandon, G. L. and Dunne, S. (1997). Symbiosis or vassalage? The media and the law enforcers – the case of Avon and Somerset police. Policing and Society, 8(1): 77-91.
Ericson, R.V., Baranek, P.M., and Chan, J.B.L. (1989). Negotiating Control: A Study of News Sources. Toronto: University of Toronto.
Feist, Andy. (1999). The effective use of the media in serious crime investigations. London, UK: Research, Development and Statistics Directorate, UK Home Office.
Innes, M. (1999). “The media as an investigative resource in murder inquiries.” British Journal of Criminology, 39(2): 269-286.
Lovell, J. (2001) Police performances: media power and impression management in contemporary policing. Dissertation. Rutgers University – Newark, May 2001.
Mawbry, R. (1997). Survey of Police Media and Public Relations Offices. Stafford, UK: Centre for Public Services Management and Research.
Mawbry, R., et. al. (2002) Policing images: Policing, communication and legitimacy. 214pp., Appendix.
Mozee, D.M. (1987). “Police/Media Conflict”. In Patricia A. Kelly (ed). Police and the Media: Bridging Troubled Waters. Pp 141-145. Springfield, IL: C.C. Thomas.
Oliver, P.E. and Maney, G.M. (2000) “Political processes and local newspaper coverage of protest events: from selection bias to triadic interactions.” American Journal of Sociology, 106(2): 463-505.
Osborne, R. (1995) Crime and the Media: From Media Studies to Post-modernism. In Kidd-Hewitt, D. and Osborne, R. (eds.) Crime and the media: the post-modern spectacle. London, UK: Pluto Press.
Rose, E. (2001) Penetrating the Media’s Psyche. Communication World, Apr/May 2001, Vol. 18, Issue 3, p. 10-12.
Schlacter, J. and Stewart, T. (1980). “The marketing concept in law enforcement agencies.” Journal of Police Science and Administration, 8(3): 341-352.
Schlesinger, P. and Tumber, H. (1994). Reporting Crime: The Media Politics of Criminal Justice. Oxford: Clarendon.
Shaw, D. (1987). “Both Blamed: Police-Media Relations – A new low” In Patricia A. Kelly (ed). Police and the Media: Bridging Troubled Waters. Springfield, IL: C.C. Thomas.
Sherizen, S. (1978). “Social Creation of Crime News: All the News Fitted to Print”. In Charles Winick (ed). Deviance and Mass Media. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Simmons, H. (1999). “Media, police, and public information: from confrontation to conciliation.” Communications and the Law, 21(2): 69-93.
Surette, Ray (ed.) (1990) The media and criminal justice policy: Recent research and social effects. Springfield, IL: Charles C. Thomas, Publisher.
Ziembo-Vogl, J. (1998). “Exploring the Functions of the Media in Community Policing”. Police Forum, V. 8:1:1-12.

4) Media impact on public opinion and policy

The amount of information about police that makes it to the public via media, and the shape it takes, would be of mostly academic interest if the media had no impact on public opinion or policy. This section explores both the extent of the influence, and the forms it takes.

Callaghan, K. and Schnell, F. (2001) “Assessing the Democratic Debate: How the News Media Frame Elite Policy Discourse”. Political Communications, 18:183-212.
Chermak, S. and Weiss, A. (1997) The effects of the media on federal criminal justice policy. CJPR, 8:4/97, pp 323-342.
Moy, P.; Pfau, M., and Kahlor, L. (1999). “Media use and public confidence in democratic institutions.” Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 43(2): 137-158.
Munro, V. (1999). Images of crime and criminals: How media creations drive public opinion and policy. Ann Arbor, MI: UMI.
Pritchard, D. (1986) Homicide and bargained justice: the agenda-setting effect of crime news on prosecutors. Public Opinion Quarterly, 50, pp. 143-159. New York, NY.
Ross, R. and Graham L. S. (1972). “The politics of analyzing social problems.” Social Problems, 18, 18-40.
Sheley, J. and Hanlon, J. (1978) Unintended effects of police decisions to actively enforce laws: Implications for analysis of crime trends. Contemporary Crises Amsterdam, 2 3, pp. 265-275.
Skidmore, P. Telling Tales: Media power, ideology and the reporting of child sexual abuse in Britain. In Kidd-Hewitt, David and Osborne, Richard (eds.) (1995). Crime and the media: the post-modern spectacle. London, UK: Pluto Press.
Stone, D. (1989). “Causal stories and the formation of policy agendas.” Political Science Quarterly, 104, 281-300.

5) Media construction of policing

The articles in this section go past the issue of what forces shape the relationship between media and police to address what image of police is being created and how it is done. They look at both media processes and frames to understand if there are biases involved and if so, what they could be. They also look at the reciprocal influences of the police, and how they try to influence the evolving portrayals.

Fishman, M. (1981). “Police News: Constructing an Image of Crime.” Urban Life, 9(4): 371-394.
Gerbner G., et. al . (1980) Trends in network television drama and viewer conceptions of social reality. The Annenberg School of Communications University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA Violence Profile No. 11, p. 63.
Hubbard, J., DeFleur, M.L., and DeFleur, L.B. (1975.) “Mass media influences on public conceptions of social problems.” Social Problems, 23: 22-34.
Kasinsky, R. “Patrolling the Facts: Media, Cops and Crime.” In Barak, Gregg (ed.). Media, Process, and the Social Construction of Crime. New York, NY: Garland Publishing Inc.
Lawrence, R.G. (1996). “Accidents, Icons and Indexing: The Dynamics of News Coverage of Police Use of Force.” Political Communication, 13:437-454.
Lofquist, William S. (1997) “Constructing “crime”: Media coverage of individual and organizational wrongdoing.” Justice Quarterly, 14(2): 243-263.
Mawbry, R. Visibility, transparency & police-media relations. Policing & Society, 1999, Vol. 9, pp. 263-286.
Nelson, T., Clawson, R. and Oxley, Z. (1997) “Media framing of a civil liberties conflict and its effect on tolerance.” American Political Science Review, September.
Perlmutter, D. (2000). Policing the Media: Street cops and public perceptions of law enforcement. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Potter, G. and Kappeler, V. (eds.). (1998) Constructing crime: perspectives on making news and social problems. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press. 357p.
Roshier, B. (1981). “The selection of crime news by the press.” In S. Cohen & J. Young (eds.) The manufacture of the news: Deviance, social problems and the mass media. Pp. 40-51. Beverly Hills: Sage.
Sheley, J.F. & Ashkins, C.D. (1981). “Crime, crime news, and crime views,” Public Opinion Quarterly, 45, 492-506.
Sheley, J. (1986) Newspaper structuring of crime views: images of homicide in Cali, Colombia. International Journal of Comparative and Applied Criminal Justice, 10, (1), p. 115-126. Wichita, KS.
Skolnick, J.H. and McCoy, C. (1984) “Police Accountability and the Media”. American Bar Foundation Research Journal, V. 1984:3:521-557.
Surette, R. (1996). “News from nowhere, policy to follow: Media and the social construction of ‘three strikes and you’re out’.” In Shichor, D. and Sechrest, D. (eds.), Three strikes and you’re out” Vengeance as public policy, ed. by. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Tuchman, G. (1978). “Making News by Doing Work: Routinizing the Unexpected”. American Journal of Sociology, V. 79:1:110-131.
Williams, P. and Dickinson, J. (1993) Fear of Crime: Read all about it? The relationship between newspaper crime reporting and fear of crime. Brit. Journal of Criminology. 33 (1): Winter 993.

6) Media, police and race

Finally, the articles in this section are drawn from both academia and popular media to explore more closely how the interaction of media and police play out in the coverage of one specific area of societal concern.

Barak, G. (ed.). (1996) Representing O.J.: Murder, criminal justice and mass culture. Albany, NY: Harrow and Heston, Publishers.
Britton, N. (2000) “Examining police/black relations: what’s in a story?” Ethnic and Racial Studies, 3(4): 692-711.
Conaway, C. (1999) “Crown Heights: Politics and press coverage of the race war that wasn’t.” Polity. October.
Erlich, H. (1999) “Reporting ethnoviolence: Newspaper treatment of race and ethnic conflict,” in ed. Fred L. Pincus and Howard J. Erlich, Race and Ethnic Conflict: Contending views on prejudice, discrimination and ethnoviolence,. Denver: Westview Press.
Jacobs, R. (2000) Race, media and the crisis of civil society: From Watts to Rodney King. Cambridge, UK: University Press.
Leo, J. 2001. The media run riot. US News & World Report. 4/30/2001.
MacDonald, H. (2001) “What really happened in Cincinnati.” City Journal, 11:3.
Ripley, A. Nights of Rage: Another police killing, and Cincinnati explodes. TIME, April 23, 2001.
Weiss, A. and Chermak, S. (1998). “The news value of African-American victims: an examination of the media’s presentation of homicide. Journal of Crime and Justice, 21(2): 71-88.
Wortley, S.; Hagan, J.; and Macmillan, R. (1997). “Just des(s)erts? The racial polarization of perceptions of criminal injustice.” Law and Society Review, 31(4): 637-676.

Wednesday, September 25, 2002

(The following essay is by the young teenage daughter of a friend, posted with her permission and that of her parents. It's a sweet tale of challenge and friendship.)

Grander than the Canyon
by Nia

I giggle as I look upon my best friend. We have recently discovered that I have the unique ability to transmit my memories to another person. We have decided to test this theory today. Now my mind is racing as to which memory I should give her. I close my eyes, deep in thought. What should I give her? The first time I ice skated, my first crush, my first play? Suddenly it comes to me.

I smile at her; then I reclose my eyes summoning the memory. I am now back at the Grand Canyon, fall break of fifth grade. I look out onto the monstrous ridge. I can’t help but think that if I have to hike down there they might as well have an ambulance follow us the whole way. I look over towards my dad and he smiles reassuringly, and I know that he will support me every step of the way. He always did know what I was thinking. I had never been physically strong. What if I passed out? This was my first time out with the ‘big kids’ and I was afraid I would mess up. All my worries seemed to space out and suddenly I found myself marveling at the beauty of the enormous canyon. The deep colors made it seem like God had decided to paint a sunset on rocks so that man could enjoy it all day long.

I take a deep breath of the clean, crisp air of the national park and put my right foot in front of my left for my first step on my hike. Then another and another and another and… I look up at my dad, who is beaming at me, telling me he is glad I decided to come. I smile; I feel so grown up! But the beauty of the first ten minutes does not erase the fear of the last week, and yet I feel stronger than I have ever. I glance up into the clear, blue October sky and spot an eagle spreading its wings. My heart soars with it as it takes a turn. My heart is filled with joy and pride.

When I finally reach the mid-point for rest, my fears have been confirmed. I am exhausted to the point of almost breaking into tears. My muscles have been seizing up. My lungs are forced to take in twice as much air as they would have liked, and I’ve sweat enough to fill a swimming pool. Again I look up at my dad for support and I see the pride in his eyes that I have made it this far. I decide I have enough strength to move on. Again I find myself putting one foot in front of the other and fighting gravity to get to the top. When I finally reach the top, I look out onto the beautiful landscape and the pride in myself is unmeasureable and seemingly infinite. I did more than conquer the canyon; I conquered myself.

I open my eyes and put my hands on my friend’s shoulders, ready to give the memory. I see in her face the air has turned hot, her muscles seize up, and then relax, contracting again in nervous fear. When her eyes open, I see them shining with pride. I had given her a memory filled with my very essence. The hike was as my life: fear of pushing myself, then doing it because I knew no other way, realizing the beauty of life, and filling with joy realizing I had made both myself and my parents proud. Her eyes fill with tears, as do mine. I no longer have that memory. Just the essence of my father’s pride remains, but all I need to know is that by cause of that simple memory, my friend now understands me better than I ever thought she could.

Sunday, May 05, 2002

I am remiss in taking so long to post this, but here is Tony Adragna's response to my post about the current scandal involving the Catholic church, posted as is with no comments. I received it April 29th. I hope to have some time this afternoon to work on a response. I haven't thus far because I don't like to toss off something quickly on such an important topic.

And I thank Tony for taking the time to engage in an exchange with me.

One thing to keep in mind when reading anything I post is that, unless I stipulate that I'm expressing my own thought, I'm often attempting to give insight into what other people are thinking. The two posts in question were largley about "the Church's" thinking -- something I'm able to provide insight on from having studied for the priesthood.

I didn't discuss why pedophilia and under-age sex are distinct because the distinction is intuitively obvious - if there's an argument that sex with a 16 year old is morally equivalent to pedophilia, I haven't heard it. But, I dropped that part of the discussion because in the final analysis all of the distinction being made are irrelevant to whether there should be punishment - that (a) isn't as bad as (b) doesn't mean that (a) oughtn't be punished. The distinctions only go to whether there ought be distinct punishments.

For the record, I think the punishment ought be the same, but the Bishops must consider the totality of the Churchs moral teaching and come to a decision that's consistent with Catholicism.

I actually did give the reason for the Biblical proscription of homosexual conduct -- "natural law that attempts to fulfill God's will" -- as opposed to adultery -- "against God's edict in the Ten Commandments." (btw - the comparison to adultery is not because the priest takes a marriage-like vow, which only priests in religious orders do, but because the sex also involves an act of infidelity to the discipline of celibacy - it may seem like a nuance, but it has to do with how Catholicism works). I'm glad you got the point, though, which is that the disinction between hetero and homo is irrelevant. Sure, I could've gotten to the point less tortuously, but then I wouldn't have dealt with some other exceptions that might have crept up.

As to the "imminent danger exception" -- it doesn't apply to the minister penitent State law on the confidentiality between minister and penitient has only two models: some states allow testimony if the penitent consents to the breach, and other states disallow the testimony even if the penitent consents. I thank you for the reference to Massachusetts' attempt to change state law in trying to compell ministers to violate confidentiality -- it's a forlorn hope. Federal courts -- including the Supreme Court -- have consistently struck down similar attempts by legislatures and lawyers. Even if such a law were to be upheld, the Roman Catholic Church would not abide it (and neither should any other church).

As to the effect the Roman Church was reaching for:

"Regarding the sins revealed to him in sacramental confession, the priest is bound to inviolable secrecy. From this obligation he cannot be excused either to save his own life or good name, to save the life of another, to further the ends of human justice, or to avert any public calamity. No law can compel him to divulge the sins confessed to him, or any oath which he takes -- e.g., as a witness in court. He cannot reveal them either directly -- i.e., by repeating them in so many words -- or indirectly -- i.e., by any sign or action, or by giving information based on what he knows through confession. The only possible release from the obligation of secrecy is the permission to speak of the sins given freely and formally by the penitent himself. Without such permission, the violation of the seal of confession would not only be a grievous sin, but also a sacrilege. It would be contrary to the natural law because it would be an abuse of the penitent's confidence and an injury, very serious perhaps, to his reputation. It would also violate the Divine law, which, while imposing the obligation to confess, likewise forbids the revelation of that which is confessed. That it would infringe ecclesiastical law is evident from the strict prohibition and the severe penalties enacted in this matter by the Church. "Let him beware of betraying the sinner by word or sign or in any other way whatsoever. . . we decree that he who dares to reveal a sin made known to him in the tribunal of penance shall not only be deposed from the priestly office, but shall moreover be subjected to close confinement in a monastery and the performance of perpetual penance" (Fourth Lateran Council, cap. xxi; Denzinger, "Enchir.", 438). Furthermore, by a decree of the Holy Office (18 Nov., 1682), confessors are forbidden, even where there would be no revelation direct or indirect, to make any use of the knowledge obtained in confession that would displease the penitent, even though the non-use would occasion him greater displeasure. "[emphasis added] (scroll down to "Seal Of Confession")

The Roman Church is quite aware that there may be adverse effects to not violating the seal, yet it's still "inviolable". The only way a priest can breach that seal is if the penitent gives permission. Also read carefully the verbiage "to save the life of another, to further the ends of human justice, or to avert any public calamity" - Cardinal Ratzinger (try a google search on him) wrote extensively on the subject some years ago after a priest (in Germany, I think) revealed that he was tormented by the fact that he had information about a murder before it happened, but couldn't reveal the information because of "the seal" (turned out the criminal was a serial murderer). Ratzinger was vigourous in defending "the seal", and admonished priests that there are no exceptions.

It gets even worse. A few years ago a priest in California had knowledge that a man about to be executed wasn't guilty -- the real killer confessed to the priest. Ratzinger again said that even in this case -- to save an innocent man -- "the seal" was inviolable.


Because the "effect" being sought is "salvation", which for the Catholic must include confession. Unless the seal is inviolable, Catholics might decide to not confess, and the Church isn't able to fullfil it mission of salvation.

As to your last point - I refer you again to the Church-State separation at Constitutional Law. Look to the Constitution for protection of your Constitutional rights from the ranting of the militant non-religious - the Roman Church's failings don't impact your rights, and you ought be prepared to defend your own rights regardless of what the Roman Church does.

Tony Adragna

Sunday, April 28, 2002

HE SAID, SHE SAID – GOD SAID? Tony Adragna on Quasipundit posted a discussion of the current Catholic imbroglio on his site, to which I replied in the QP forum, The Refuge. Tony kindly dragged me screaming out of the dark and plunked me into the full light of day with a response to my post on QP. So now we move to full cross-blogging mode because my answer is too long for The Refuge.

Tony first divides the priestly offenses into categories: homosexual pedophilia; heterosexual pedophilia; homosexual sex with a post-pubescent; heterosexual sex with a post-pubescent. As he rightly notes, some of the activity was with pre-pubescent males, which would be pedophilia, but some was with post-pubescent males, which would be activity between sexually mature bodies, even if the mind in one of those bodies is as much child as adult (i.e. not fully adult in the ability to assess consequences and properly evaluate physical and/or emotional risk). He asserts that there is a “big difference in morality between under-age sex and pedophilia”, without stating why, then says that neither behavior is okay. He gets back to the under-age issue under the discussion of legalities, but never explains why one is more immoral than the other. Without additional comment he appears to drop that part of the discussion and moves on to homosexuality and adultery, which we will get to later.

I think it’s safe to say that Tony’s sense of pedophilia as worse than sex between an adult and a teenager has to do with the level of innocence and vulnerability of pre-pubescent children, and I think that has some merit; certainly, as he notes, the age of legal consent for sex ranges from 14 upward in the United States, and from 12 upward in other parts of the world, with the highest minimum set at 21. I think, however, to make a difference between them for the purposes of judging priests engaged in sexual activity with youths is a bad precedent, even if our sensibilities are more offended by one than the other. The line is not drawn at whether the sex partner had legal right to consent; the line is that the priests vowed to eschew certain behaviors and they had an added trust because of their influence as avowed men of God on youth at varying degrees of maturity. Just because some went horribly beyond the line doesn’t mean that the violations of the others are suddenly less blameworthy.

The next issue is homosexuality, and that gets very tangled quickly, so I won’t untangle it except to the extent necessary for this discussion. Tony says that many believe homosexuality is worse than adultery; the reason for that, although he doesn’t say so, is the scriptural reference to homosexuality as “against the natural use” of the body. He then goes into a long discussion of why he uses the term adultery – in which at least one partner in the sex act is married to someone else – instead of fornication, which is a more general phrase referring to sex between any people other than those married to each other. He concludes that priests who engage in sexual activity are in fact adulterous because they have made the equivalent of a marriage vow to the Catholic Church on their ordination, and thus are breaking that vow when having sex. Continuing in a rather torturous manner, he finally decides that too much weight is put on homosexual activity when heterosexual activity is just as bad because both are adultery for a priest. I think he could have made the case much more quickly by just saying this: a priest promises to be celibate, and it doesn’t matter if the priest has sex with the gardener, his wife, his young son or his dog, the priest has broken that vow and should be removed from priestly duties. The type of act committed has more to do with what should happen after the removal – whether he is turned over to authorities, dismissed from church employ, or allowed to remain working for the church in some non-priestly capacity.

(I also disagree with the designation of the priest and nun as uniquely “married” to God – the church is the “bride” of Christ and thus anyone who is a member of the church is a part of God’s “bride”. In addition, I believe adultery is the breaking of a vow between two humans made before the heavenly Father, and so a priest having sex is not adultery. But those are theological differences and not the point of this response.)

The big difficulty for me is the whole issue of canon law. Sociologically, churches are defined on a continuum from very high church to very low church, with the level of formality, ritual and collective structure being the criteria used to determine where a particular group belongs. The Roman Catholic Church, with its great elaborate and formal rituals, its massive collective structure and highly developed canon, is about as high church as it gets. The group with which I am affiliated is about as low church as it gets, with few rituals and the Bible as our only guide for behavior and religious law. That said, I’m going to dive in anyway.

It is my understanding that any situation implying imminent danger to a third party can trigger an exception to the confidentiality rule in civil law; if, for example, I tell my therapist in the course of a session that I am going to kill Tony, that I have the knife, and I describe in detail precisely how I intend to do it and when, then my therapist has a legal requirement to break the confidentiality and inform the authorities. By the same token, if I am actively engaging in sex with a pre-pubescent youth and I tell my attorney or therapist about it, they have a responsibility again to tell the authorities because of the obvious likelihood of continued harm to that child. If I’m wrong – I’m not an attorney and I’ve not researched this extensively – then I’m sure Tony or someone else will set me straight. I do know that the rules on confidentiality are governed by state law, and Massachusetts is already changing theirs because of this scandal. So if the protections of civil law really do not inhere, canon is the issue. And the way Tony describes it, there are no exceptions for breaking confidentiality there; the only grace is if the Vatican decides to go easy on the priest who makes it known that a colleague or subordinate is being abusive. So in fact it is more righteous, canonically speaking, to protect a pedophilic priest than to reveal his crime. I do not think that this effect was what the Catholic church was reaching for when that canon was set; I think it likely that if this crime was considered at all, the lawmakers assumed such horrific behavior would be summarily dealt with inside the confines of the church and not need to see the light of a brighter, more secular day for children and other parishioners to be protected from predatory priests. Tony calls use of this loophole “misusing the seal”. My terms would be much harsher. The entire Catholic church is tainted by the hierarchy’s willingness to play hide ‘n seek in the canon, and a canon that implicitly allows this behavior is desperately flawed.

Which leads to the last point, where Tony

must vigorously disagree with the notion that this gives ‘non-Catholic believers a stake in this process’…the process isn't about changing society -- it's about changing the Church… [it’s] ultimately Catholics deciding how to be Catholic.

No, Tony, it’s not. As I said before, maybe that’s true in the finer points. But as noted above, the state of Massachusetts is already changing its clergy-confidentiality law as a direct result of hypocrisy in the Catholic hierarchy; other states will likely follow suit. All churches and clergy will be scrutinized more closely as a result. This will forever be used as “another brick in the wall” by the militant non-religious as an example of how the religious allowed to run amok will not govern themselves but will instead protect their own at the cost of even little children’s sexual innocence. Tony, my religious freedom is damaged by the behavior of predatory priests and the criminal malfeasance of Cardinal Law and others. I look to you and other Catholics like you to protect America’s religious freedoms from this abuse, and you say to me, go away, I’m a Catholic and this is our business, not yours. It was the refusal to see the broader implications of their behavior that led the Catholic hierarchy to close in on themselves and try to defuse this mess internally; please don’t refuse to see the broader implications of how the Catholic church as an entity resolves this. It does have an impact on all the religious.

Monday, March 25, 2002

Thanks to Bryan Preston at JunkYardBlog and Kevin Holtsberry at Ideas etc., for the links. For those who are interested, I also have another blog - cut on the bias - that looks at media bias, crime and other issues.

Sunday, March 24, 2002

VILLAINIZATION OF CHRISTIANS? Bryan Preston at JunkYardBlog thinks that Christians are a convenient target for Americans of different political stripes looking for an enemy to excoriate, including those who should be political allies in at least some contexts, like libertarians. I think his characterization is too harsh, but it does happen. It got me thinking about the odd disconnect that any political villainization of Christians is.

The villainization usually takes one of two forms: Christians are trying to impose moral strictures on the larger population; and Christians are collectively expressing harsh, ugly viewpoints that are inconsistent with personal liberty. I’ll deal with each in order.

In any society, laws are foremost for the purpose of establishing safety and order – the more complex the society, the more varied and complex are the laws. Any imposition of law is by definition an infringement of individual self-determination – I may choose in absence of the law to behave as the law would prescribe, but once the law is imposed my behavior is not a matter of choice but compulsion. Some laws could be interpreted in their simplest manifestation as primarily utilitarian in nature – a proscription against murder is to the general advantage of each individual in society. Other laws are founded more in a moral framework – for instance, a law against spouse abuse that ends short of killing. But imbedded in any imposition of law are purely moral determinations – why is one act considered more reprehensible, or a larger infringement on the collective’s interests, than any other, to the extent that one violates law and the other doesn’t even though the net outcome is not different? Why is a woman killing her five children more wrong than a soldier killing five terrorists? The answer emerges largely from moral assessment. Thus, the struggle in any democracy is most often between those who hold moral ideologies that compete partially or fully.

How does that work for the purposes of this discussion?

I’ll use an example from Instapundit Glenn Reynolds that isn’t a matter of law but shows the different moral ideologies in conflict. He said that while his sister was in college, a street preacher called her a “slut” because of the way she was dressed. The preacher grabbed her, and she hit him. Reynolds used that as an example of “the traditional values crowd” imposing their will on others. But who is to say that the preacher’s worldview is more or less moral than Reynolds’ sister’s? I’m not at all agreeing with the preacher’s behavior – in fact, I think it was ugly. But likely in the preacher’s viewpoint, the behavior of Reynolds’s sister was an example of behaviors that threatened the cohesiveness of society by encouraging sexual activity outside of a marriage relationship, as well as an abridgement, in his view, of God’s law, and thus almost any attempt to correct it would be justified. Conversely, Reynolds’s sister was behaving in a manner that in her worldview was appropriate, even benign, and likely in her view the preacher attacked her for not complying with his worldview, rather than for any objection that held moral merit. In either case, though, the decision about whether or not the behavior was benign was a moral one. The supremacy of the rights of the individual over the individual or collective power of others to impose their will on that individual is a moral tenet, not an objective truth like gravity or the rivers in the sea. So when Reynolds and others object to the preacher’s behavior, they do so on moral grounds – precisely the same grounds that the preacher used in guiding his reaction to Reynolds’s sister. Just because we prefer one position over the other does not make them categorically different.

The argument isn’t that all moral perspectives are equally valid; I don’t think that’s true. I’m saying that it is disingenuous for a libertarian (or anyone else) to say that a Christian who makes moral assessments of behavior is behaving in a way different from the libertarian. And since laws are mostly about making assessments of what behaviors are and are not appropriate in society, any law (including laws protecting individual rights from abridgement by individual or collective power) is by definition an imposition of morality.

The next issue is the characterization of Christians as collectively attempting to impose a wide range of strictures on society that society does not want. This is patently inaccurate and any honest person taking the time to explore the range of beliefs falling under the “Christian” umbrella would have to agree. Those who call themselves “Christians” agree about very little universally; it’s more like a fuzzy ball of matter that gets more solid (i.e. cohesive) as it nears the core. The core, in this image, is the Christians who hold most closely to a literal interpretation of the Christian Bible, and those are generally known by the blanket (and increasingly perjorative) term “fundamentalist”. The outer fuzzy fringes are the groups with doctrine loosely based on Christian principles but who view them more as a good place to start than as a binding voice of God. There is almost as much variation inside the “Christian” community as outside it.

That fact doesn’t carry much weight with those who disagree with viewpoints of any of the variant Christian groups. It is convenient and efficient to characterize all as “fundamentalists” or as “imposing their morality on everyone” (as if the libertarian isn’t doing the same thing in advocating a strict individual-rights agenda). In this manner a vague, amorphous but menacing straw man called “the Christian right” is created, where the people in opposition define what “the Christian right” is and then tear it down point by point. The problem is – the straw man bears little resemblance to the Christian collective, and often not much more resemblance to the particular “Christian” group currently trying to get a certain viewpoint into the legal lexicon. The obvious advantage is that many Americans don’t take the time to deconstruct this image to find whatever truth is at its base, and the Christian groups have yet to develop their own strategies to combat the characterizations. It is helpful for those in opposition that the nation’s media have been complicit in both development and dissemination of this straw man image of Christians, and that the fragmentation of Christian belief systems create suspicion between the groups too (an interesting irony).

It is ultimately a shame that this ideological warfare is waged between groups that are, in many ways, natural allies – such as libertarians and many “kinds” of Christians (and there is more intersection between the two than many libertarians I’ve seen online seem to want to acknowledge). The fault lies on both sides. Hard-core libertarians are edgy on principle about the majority Christian worldview which historically has created many restrictions on society (the validity of the restrictions is open to discussion). Many Christians in turn are suspicious of a movement that seems to say “anything goes” – it appears almost amoral at first look, a license for “if it feels good, do it”. It takes a closer look to recognize that the heart of libertarianism is not amorality, but the right to individually determine one’s own morality with the bare minimum of concessions to collective safety and order for society. It is an unfortunate truth that many Christians seem to feel that given the legal option to choose immorality, most will, and thus legislating morality in line with their Christian philosophy is often a preference. But the stronger factor is that many Christians genuinely believe that ordering society in accordance with Christian principles will ultimately preserve society better than any other model. And I agree – the difficulty is, which version of Christian beliefs should be imposed? That is where the libertarians can swoop in and offer a haven for Christians – if you can’t make a decision about what moral ideology to prefer from a legal standpoint, it makes sense to allow room for the broadest range of ideological practices possible. It is an imperfect compromise, but one that would be workable more often than it currently is if both sides recognized the collective advantage.

From a personal perspective, I’m one of the “core” Christians, with a strongly literal interpretation of Scripture and a concomitant sense of responsibility to order my life by that understanding. If I made the laws of this country based on my view of “right”, most of those reading this would pack their bags and move, at least to Canada. But while I do believe this society would be better for a more Christian approach to societal ordering, at the same time I also firmly believe that Christianity is ultimately a moral decision made on an individual basis. I shouldn’t need a law against abortion for me to choose not to have one – all I need is the moral conviction that it’s wrong. And I don’t have to have a law against abortion to spread my moral conviction that it’s wrong – what I need is the freedom to be able to share my understanding of the issue and the rationale of my belief to anyone who will willingly listen. I may prefer to have a law against it, but it is not a necessary corollary to my belief.

That is where libertarians can appeal to me – because we are going to agree that it is better to have fewer laws, they because of their conviction of the supremacy of individual rights, and me because I would rather have no law than a law imposing a morality that I find repugnant. I think we would, for instance, agree that federal funds should not be used for abortion clinics and for offering counseling that encourages abortion – they would object to the increased involvement of the federal government and the use of federal funds for this type of personal problem, and I would object to the abortion advocacy paid for by my tax dollars. The reasons are different, the desired legal result is the same.

That is why the characterization of Christians as “the enemy” is damaging to the libertarian agenda. They are allowing a knee-jerk reaction to ideological differences to prevent them from finding concurrences that would, in the long run, advance their own agenda. I personally am trying not to let my own knee-jerk reaction to their sneers at Christians, which I find elitist, intellectually arrogant and ideologically ignorant, to abridge my willingness to find common ground.