A faulty Sunday school lesson

FirstBaptistWatertownOh the confusing tales that we journalists weave, except when we attempt to deceive by making them too simple. Did you hear that Thomson Financial has begun using computer-generated stories? Yes, some of what journalists used to do is now being done by computers. I can't say that's surprising, because of the cut and paste, let's get that data out there nature of some journalism.

This type of technology is a long way off from replacing religion reporters -- except, perhaps, when you ignore the details of a slightly complicated story and write a formulaic article with a shocking headline that confirms stereotypes and misreports the facts.

When I first stumbled across an Associated Press article about the firing of a longtime Sunday School teacher because her Baptist church had adopted a "literal interpretation" of the Bible's teaching on women in the church, I knew something was amiss. Here is a report from Dan Harris of ABC News, who is not a regular religion reporter, that is only slightly more detailed than the AP's:

Aug. 21, 2006 -- After 54 years of classes, a New York Sunday school teacher is getting an unexpected lesson in theology: She lost her job because of her sex.

Mary Lambert, 81, has been a member of the First Baptist Church in Watertown, N.Y., for 60 years. She had her wedding on the premises, raised her kids in its halls and taught Sunday school at First Baptist for more than five decades.

But she recently received a letter from the church board notifying her that the board had voted unanimously to dismiss her from her post. The letter referred to her sex as one of the reasons for her dismissal, quoting the Bible's First Epistle to Timothy, which states: "I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she is to keep silent."

Actually if Harris had bothered to dig any further, he would have discovered a more complex story that is messy and involves church politics, factions, and what appears (at least to outsiders) as petty squabbling. I also have a suspicion that this article did not surprise his editors because it confirmed all their worst stereotypes. This article would set off alarm bells in the head of any editor with even the slightest understanding of the theology behind conservative church policies.

I won't make any claims of knowing the full story, but after reading this letter from the church's pastor, the Rev. Timothy LaBouf, it's obvious that Lambert was not fired simply because she is a woman. A convenient fact that Harris and the AP left out of their articles is that, according to this letter from the church's deacon board, which includes women, a large percentage of the Sunday school teachers at First Baptist Church, Watertown, N.Y., are women. They are not being fired.

Judging from LaBouf's letter, it appears the church fired Lambert for making a fuss earlier this year -- that ended up in the local media -- about changes being made by a new pastor:

We had originally intended to include the various multifaceted reasons for the dismissal in our [correspondence;] however after legal review it was recommended that we refrain from including issues that could be construed as slander and stick with "spiritual issues" that govern a church, which the courts have historically stayed out of. With threats of lawsuits in the past we wanted to try hard to not go down that road again. I am sure you can understand why we would desire to exercise caution.

Yes, Pastor LaBouf, we all understand. However, your church's sneaky actions did not make it easy for reporters and this seems to have backfired. But that is no excuse for reporters failing to dig out some of the nitty gritty facts and report them.

But why should we expect that level of detail from news reporters? It's clear that reporters, including the author of this Reuters story, read the letter but chose to omit its details. What other facts have been left out?

It's really not that complicated a story, unless you ignore facts to downgrade it to a level that could be written by a computer. Just remember, reporters, facts keep journalists in business.

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