When gossip makes the front page


Did you hear the latest news from Memphis, Tenn.?

A woman accused of church gossip made the front page of The Commercial Appeal, Memphis' metro daily. The story has generated quite a discussion in Elvis Presley's hometown.

The top of the report:

Dr. Nan Hawkes has been a member of Second Presbyterian Church for 35 years. That would end if she's excommunicated over charges of "slander, bickering and gossip" against church leadership.

Hawkes, 59, said Wednesday she has been indicted by the church, accused of "offenses of immorality and contempt for the established order of the church."

The proceedings will be held in March and will be presided over by Criminal Court Judge Chris Craft. An elder at the church, Craft confirmed Wednesday that he has been chosen as chairman of a five-member commission (three men, two women) of church members who will hear the case if it is not settled through negotiations.

Officials with Second Presbyterian, at 4055 Poplar, would not comment on the charges against Hawkes.

"We're committed to resolving all cases like this in accordance with Scripture and in accordance with our book of order," said Robb Roaten, church spokesman. "It's a sad situation that this kind of thing would happen at all."

(A quick digression before weighing in on the bigger picture: That third paragraph gives the impression that the case is headed to a criminal court judge. The story should have made clearer that a church elder who happens to be a judge will handle the proceedings.)

Readers who submitted the story link to your friendly neighborhood GetReligionistas offered differing perspectives on the report.

Said one tipster:

It makes no sense that it is even in the paper, much less front page with a photo.

Another correspondent said:

I suppose it is front-page news because it is so rare for a matter of gossip to be handled through formal charges in a church. Tons of questions leapt out to me that remain unanswered.

I think the second reader is probably right: It's not often that a church initiates excommunication proceedings against a member for gossip. Moreover, this is not just any church; this is a 3,800-member congregation with a 150-plus-year history in Memphis. To me, this is a legitimate news story, and The Commercial Appeal's straightforward report gave me no serious heartburn. At the same time, I understand why the church refused to comment.

More interesting to me than the initial story, however, was the column that Commercial Appeal Editor Chris Peck wrote Sunday defending the coverage. You get the impression reading the column that the story offended somebody (or lots of somebodies) at the "big, powerful church" and that Peck is walking a fine line between appeasing those somebodies and voicing his confidence in the journalistic approach taken. The (alleged) gossiping member certainly moves from potential heroine in the news story to all-around louse in Peck's piece.

From the editor's column:

In a tart e-mail, Cory Hale, a lifelong subscriber to the newspaper and a member of Second Presbyterian, noted that all kinds of organizations face conflict. Sometimes that conflict simply cannot be resolved and a forced separation must occur, he said. ''Shame on The Commercial Appeal for sensationalizing the ordinary with a front-page story and giving your readership the impression that this is somehow extraordinary, even scandalous, just because it happened in a church -- my church.''

A fair comment. And not dissimilar from some discussions inside the newsroom about the newsworthiness of the story.

Some editors asked whether the story was too much of an inside-the-church issue to warrant coverage. Others asked whether the story really mattered much to the public. Still others wondered whether we knew enough about what is going on to report about it.

All good points.

But in the end, there was little disagreement among the journalists that this story was unusual and would have a broad public interest.

I wish the editors who wondered whether the paper knew enough about what was going on had received more of a hearing. Peck's column provides much more insight and context (assuming his unnamed sources can be believed) on the situation than the initial 655-word news report, which was told primarily from the perspective of the woman accused of gossip. At the same time, the editor provides plausible rationale for why the story matters — the kind of explanation that might have helped the report itself.

All in all, a little more TLC before publication might have negated the need for so much navel gazing afterward. The paper's highly talented Faith in Memphis columnist David Waters did not write this story, but I'd have loved to have seen it in his capable hands.

What say ye, GetReligion readers? Is a church member facing excommunication for gossip newsworthy? Was The Commercial Appeal's initial report adequate? Should the paper have dug deeper before going to press?

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