Into the guilt file: Another strange story about a newsroom that contains no telephones

Just the other day, our own Bobby Ross, Jr., did a great job of explaining the concept of the "guilt folders" that your GetReligionistas keep, either in the back of our minds or literally in a digital folder in an email program.

Like he said, sometimes things just stack up and you forget about news stories that you intended to feature in a post. It's like those days when you see that you have 500 emails in your personal in-basket and you really don't know how they got there.

However, there's another kind of "guilt folder" story. Sometimes you read a story and your mind says, "What the heck?" You know that there's something there but it takes you a long time to put your finger on it.

This is one of those guilt-file stories. It comes from The Desert Sun in Palm Springs, Calif., and it focuses on two actions -- one by the board of Southwest Community Church and the other by its pastor. Long ago, it was a timely story, with a timely headline: "California pastor resigns over gay marriage stance."

Here's the top of that story. Try to spot the journalism landmine that it took me some time to figure out.

A few months ago, Pastor Gerald Sharon -- who has been lead pastor of Southwest since 2013 and previously served at Saddleback Church in Orange County -- asked the church hierarchy to look into “the extent to which a homosexual individual could be involved in the life of Southwest Church.”
While the church leadership initially seemed engaged in the discussions, they recently sent Sharon a letter in which they unanimously affirmed Southwest’s current position on homosexuality.
Southwest’s LGBT policy is written down in a document titled “Homosexuality and Human Sexuality.” The document does not appear to be publicly available.
“My heart sank realizing that no homosexual person who would read these documents would truly feel welcome at Southwest Church,” Sharon wrote in his resignation letter.

This is, naturally, one of those modern, Kellerism-era news reports in which (as a reader noted, in the email containing this URL) it appears that no one at The Desert Sun even attempted to interview anyone at this church who supports the congregation's doctrinal point of view on sex and marriage (as opposed to doing solid interviews with critics of these doctrines). In place of interviews with these people the story contains -- the new norm -- quotes from a public statement, on paper, released by the church.

On one side of the story are real people who have a point of view that deserves to be taken seriously, including extensive quotes in which they tell their stories and explain their beliefs.

On the other side there? There is a piece of paper. That's all.

But that's not what nagged me, the more I thought about this story. No, here is the early statement in the story that -- in hindsight -- bothers me the most. Let's read it again:

Southwest’s LGBT policy is written down in a document titled “Homosexuality and Human Sexuality.” The document does not appear to be publicly available.

What does that "publicly available" reference mean?

I assume that this means that this statement has not been posted on the church's website where a reporter could find it with a few clicks of a mouse. It is not included in the church's "What we believe" pages, either.

How rude! Can you imagine?

I mean, a reporter might actually have to place a TELEPHONE CALL to the church to request the document! Do newsrooms even have telephones these days? Maybe two cans and a really long wire?

If the call was successful, that might require a reporter to walk to the newsroom fax machine or consent to opening a .pdf document.

Even worse, should these stressful acts fail, someone at the newspaper might need to (trigger alert: incoming reference to basic journalism) DRIVE over to the church and talk to a human being. I would imagine that the church staff would not be all that excited about seeing a reporter, in this case, but I seriously doubt they would refuse to hand over the document. Who knows, the statement might even be available via the church's denomination, the Evangelical Free Church of America.

Once again: Is the big idea here that The Desert Sun could not quote the document because it wasn't posted on the World Wide Web? #Really

Oh, why did the reader send us the URL for this story? Let's just say that the note focused on this part of the story. Once again, this shows how long this story has been hidden in my guilt folder:

Church elders announced Sharon's abrupt departure to their members ... hours before a gunman killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando. Several families walked out of the service after hearing the elders' message.

And later, to make sure readers got the point:

Announcement of Sharon’s resignation came hours before the biggest mass shooting in American history in an Orlando gay nightclub. The shooter reportedly harbored homophobic views; his father told news outlets the shooter became visibly upset when he saw two men kiss.

Yes, the announcement was BEFORE the terrorist attack in Orlando. What is the news connection here? The email from the GetReligion reader noted:

Do editors no longer understand what non sequitur means? ... Were the church elders expected to know that in a few hours the Orlando massacre would take place? That's what that statement makes it sound like.
Please respect our Commenting Policy