The statute of limitations on “imminent”

Paul Majendie of Reuters has the latest “sky is falling/schism is imminent” article, this one pegged to the Diocese of Ottawa’s decision to ask its bishop to authorize a rite for blessing same-sex unions.

Faced with a bid from Canadian clerics to bless gay weddings, the worldwide Anglican Communion now faces a real risk of breaking apart over differences between its liberal and conservative wings.

“The train and the buffers are getting closer,” said religious journalist and commentator Clifford Longley.

The bishop has not yet decided how to respond, and if he authorizes a rite, it is unclear what the Church of Canada, or the Anglican Commuinion will do in response. It is also far from clear whether one can have a “schism” involving a single diocese. But no journalist covering this story has been held accountable for erroneous predictions of imminent schism.

We’ve explored the sky is falling/gap is widening problem that journalists succumb to on a regualr basis twice previously. For the key excerpts, click on the words in blue.

Excerpt 1

It’s a basic journalistic convention to explain in any ongoing story why the development being written about on that particular day is worth reading. In the Anglican saga, this has given rise to what I refer to as the “gap widening” paragraph. Since at least 2003, very capable reporters have been filing stories saying that the gap between liberals and conservatives in the Episcopal Church is “widening.” Sometimes this graph is accurate, but sometimes it isn’t. Sometimes the gap is widening; sometimes the reporter has just become aware of how wide the gap has always been; and sometimes the reporter just need some shorthand to justify the coverage of what might be a marginal development.

When I was a journalist, I wrote these sorts of paragraphs many times myself, so I am not just confessing someone else’e sins. In any ongong story, journalists tend to settle on a master narrative and gague the significance of incremental developments in the context of that narrative.

The problem with gap widening graph is that, repeated on a regular basis, it exaggerates and possibly intensifies the phenomenon it seeks to describe. There are some 7,200 Episcopal parishes in this country. If we lost one average sized parish per day for the next two years, we’d lose a little over 10 percent of our membership. Obviously that wouldn’t be good. But now imagine that a “gap widening” paragraph appears in the newspaper every time one of those parishes departs. After two years, what would be greater– our losses, or the public’s perception of our losses?

Excerpt 2

“The rift in the Anglican Communion stayed about the same size yesterday, or possibly shrank a bit. It was hard to say. But whatever one could say would be said against a backdrop of slightly decreased anxiety, although some people still don’t treat one another as well as one might like.”

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