The messy side of journalism

Done right, journalism can be downright messy, filled with complex subject matter and competing voices -- all given a fair chance to explain their points of view.

This kind of journalism forces readers to weigh arguments and consider evidence.

This kind of journalism gives no clue as to the reporter's -- or media outlet's -- feelings on a particular issue.

This kind of journalism does not describe a Los Angeles Times story this week on a lesbian minister found guilty of violating the Presbyterian Church's constitution.

Despite occupying Column One on the Times' front page, this 2,100-word story would be better described as an op-ed piece than a news story. If you think traditional religion has it all wrong on homosexuality, you'll love this totally one-sided report that opens like this:

Reporting from San Francisco -- The first time the Rev. Jane Adams Spahr was brought to trial by the Presbyterian Church, the prosecutor in the 1992 case likened her to an "addictive gambler," a "confirmed bank robber" and a "habitual child abuser."

The third time she was brought to trial, by the church she loves and refuses to leave, a religious tribunal found her guilty of violating the Presbyterian constitution. But then several of its members apologized to Spahr, and their decision admonished not the faithful minister but the faith itself.

"We call upon the church to reexamine our own fear and ignorance that continues to reject the inclusiveness of the Gospel of Jesus Christ," panel members wrote while finding Spahr guilty in Napa last August. "We as a church need to be able to respond to ... reality as Dr. Jane Spahr has done with faithfulness and compassion."

So just what crimes has Spahr committed? The 68-year-old grandmother is a lesbian, officiates at weddings of same-sex couples and insists on calling those unions marriages. To do otherwise, she says, consigns her flock to second-class citizenship, and "I have seen the violence that has done."

In this story, there are two distinct sides. One side is rational and sees Spahr as another Rosa Parks. The other side is messed up and derides Spahr as "an irritant, a provocateur, an ecclesiastical anarchist."

One side gets a voice in the story. The other side is talked about, not to, except for obligatory one-liners like this:

"Right now, she is straining our church to the point that it could well break and could well fail," said the Rev. James D. Berkley, a Seattle minister whose complaints led to Spahr's second trial in 2006.

That's the full extent of Berkley's appearance in the story.

This paragraph is typical of how the story frames the issue:

Since 1996, the Presbyterian Church has voted five times on the validity of same-sex marriage and whether gays and lesbians may serve as elders, deacons and ministers -- without allowing either. The denomination is voting yet again on ordination. Nonetheless, in the last decade, nearly 100 congregations have left the Presbyterian Church (USA), aligning themselves instead with denominations that view homosexuality as a sin against God.

Sin against God? Is there any other kind?

Why do the 100 congregations that have left the Presbyterian Church view homosexuality as a sin? What are their specific theological beliefs? This is as close as the Times gets to explaining what the other side -- the wrong side -- believes:

"Homosexual conduct" is "contrary to the order that God intended," prosecutor Julius Poppinga intoned during the trial that ensued. It is "incompatible with Christian faith and life."

It doesn't matter if "the constitution does not say you may not call a confirmed bank robber as your minister," Poppinga continued. "It does not say you may not call a habitual child abuser" to the pulpit. Just because it does not explicitly outlaw hiring "a confirmed homosexual proves absolutely nothing" either.

The sad part is that the story does an excellent job of putting a real human face on Spahr, highlighting turning points in her life and giving readers a behind-the-scenes look at what makes her tick. But the total one-sidedness of the piece robs it of any substantive credibility.

Done right, journalism can be downright messy.

Done wrong, as the Times illustrates, it's just a mess.

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