Church struggle: Tampa Bay Times settles for tabloid-style coverage

Ruskin, about 21 miles south of Tampa, is best known for its beaches and resorts -- and, like elsewhere in Florida, for the occasional gator encounter. But when it's the site of a power struggle in a church, it draws coverage from the state's largest newspaper. 

But not necessarily informative coverage -- either for religion or basic journalism. The Tampa Bay Times is apparently there just for the tabloid-vintage fun of watching reverent people squabbling.

Thus far, the Times has devoted at least two articles to the infighting at the church, detailing a lawsuit by the pastor and stunts like changing the locks. But the lack of a seasoned religion writer -- the Times laid off its veteran specialist, Michelle Bearden, in 2014 -- shows in the coverage.

We get a promising lede in these 550 words, even a hint of religious literacy:

RUSKIN — Thou shall not steal, reads the eighth commandment, but Shirley Dail insists she had to take possession of the Ruskin Church of Christ Christian Church to save it.
In the two months since she seized the shrinking church, where she had worshipped off and on the past 16 years, the 80-year-old Dail has brought in a vibrant congregation, she said. 
Now, the people she pushed out are in court fighting to get their space back.
The house of prayer on Second Avenue NW in Ruskin is a house divided, according to a lawsuit filed by the church July 14.

I'm also pleasantly surprised that the Times calls the church "a house divided," although it doesn't attribute Jesus as the source of the phrase. But the story is better on the lawsuit and the "he said, she said" part than on anything touching religion. Or even on following up the "he said, she said."

Cards on the table: When I was the religion writer for a daily newspaper, I heard of similar family fights and usually didn’t cover them. I always asked whether the quarrels affected people outside the church and/or whether it posed significant religious issues. The last time I waded into such a battle was 2009, with the failed effort to fire the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church -- a 2,000+ member congregation and once an outpost in the religious right.

By contrast, the Ruskin Church of Christ Christian Church seems to involve less than 50 people on both sides. And it's in a smallish town of 17,000.  So the interest of the Tampa Bay Times, 21 miles away, seems excessive.

But if you do the story, do it right.

You’ve already read the first hole in the article: taking Shirley Dail's word for it that the church has been shrinking and that she has brought in a "vibrant congregation." In what terms? Numeric? Community work? Range of ages? 

Admittedly, the Times doesn't purely take Dail's side. But like the famous "hanging chads" that plagued the 2000 presidential election, the paper leaves several questions dangling:

* "In a written statement to the Tampa Bay Times, plaintiffs including church minister Don White said Dail locked herself inside June 5 and put up signs 'telling all not to enter, (that) declared several bogus accusations levied at the Ruskin church.' "  Bogus accusations like what?

* "Since then, White said, his congregation — as few as a half-dozen people, according to Dail — has been waiting for a court to settle the dispute, and meeting for services at a Denny's restaurant in Sun City Center." Why take Dail's word for it?

* "White said allegations about the health of the church are irrelevant to the lawsuit. He called the congregation both 'functional' and 'vital.' " White should have been asked to explain down those terms, "functional" and "vital."

* "Dail's goal was to increase the church's flock." What a shock. I thought she was going to say she wanted the church to wither.

The article does log some factual claims, but it doesn't cross-check them.

Dail says she was among the founding members of the church in the 1960s, and that she "made a personal loan to help build the church." Is that true, Pastor White? 

For his part, he says Dail "claims to be the property's titleholder but can't back it up with any evidence." Is that true, Ms. Dail?

Later, the article calls Dail a "pastor," without spelling out what that means. Was she ordained somewhere? If so, was it in the Church of Christ Christian Church denomination (yes, there is one)? Or did she give herself that title purely because she put together a congregation?

And how large is Dail's flock? You’ve already seen her assertion that the Ruskin church has shrunk to a half-dozen members. How about her rival congregation? It's "five or six times larger than the usual Sunday crowds," the Times says. And that number would be …?

Most vexing is that most of these questions aren’t even religious -- they are simple reporting questions, familiar to any reporter in sports or business or politics or even general assignment. How did the editors let this story reach print or the internet without having the questions cleared up?

I get it that White communicated with the Times via written statement. In such a case, the play is to ask written follow-up questions in return. I see no indication that the newspaper did that with either main source. (And Dail apparently gave a live interview.)

Again, I've been there. I know that intramural fights are hard to report because one or both sides usually try to hide or whitewash the conflict.  You just do your best and acknowledge when you’ve hit a wall. You don’t simply milk the story for the fun of the fight.

Photo by Jim Davis.

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