All the details that matter

A reader alerted us to a Wisconsin newspaper's coverage of the church trial of a United Methodist minister who performed a same-sex wedding ceremony. The reader praised the reporting by the Appleton Post-Crescent:

What I noticed -- and wanted to draw to your attention -- is the reporting by a smaller-market writer, Michael Louis Vinson. This report is fair, explanatory, economical and interesting, in my opinion.

After checking out Vinson's recent stories (here, here and here), I'd have to say that I agree — wholeheartedly — with the perceptive reader.

Here's the top of the first story:

KAUKAUNA — Nearly two years after she officiated a marriage ceremony for a lesbian couple and filed for domestic partnership status in Polk County, the Rev. Amy DeLong pleaded not guilty in a church trial that started today to charges that she is a “self-avowed practicing homosexual” who performed that same-sex union in violation of United Methodist Church laws.

But church counsel told a jury of 13 Wisconsin clergy there is “clear and convincing” proof she did break church rules, noting DeLong herself provided church leadership information about both the ceremony and her domestic partnership declaration.

“DeLong is guilty of the charges made against her and must be made accountable,” the Rev. Tom Lambrecht said in his opening statement. Lambrecht argued DeLong had “chosen to willfully violate the terms of our (clergy) covenant and yet remain in it.”

Though DeLong, 44, does not dispute the facts of the case, her counsel, the Rev. Scott Campbell, said the evidence does not prove she ever performed homosexual acts and therefore cannot be found guilty of being a self-proclaimed “practicing” homosexual.

“What we will contest vigorously is that Amy ever self-avowed anything about what happens in the privacy of her relationship with (her partner) to a bishop or a district superintendent or any official body of the church,” Campbell said in his opening statement.

This is one of those cases -- too rare, unfortunately -- where I read the reports and had two general reactions. First, in each of the three daily reports I saw, I felt like the writer presented each side's positions and arguments as fully and fairly as possible. Second, I had no idea — at the end of any of the stories — what the writer's personal opinion might be.

The third story to which I linked was typical in its approach to the parties. That story, about the 20-day suspension the minister received at the end of the trial, gave DeLong space to share her reaction in her own words:

DeLong told The Post-Crescent she would "do my best" to meet the deadline, and cast the penalty as a victory.

"We've said all along that we have already been successful," DeLong said. "We had a 100 percent chance of winning because our goal was to be faithful and to tell the truth. We have done that and we've broken the silence. We've opened the door a little bit so (gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender) people can hear a good message from the church."

You'll never guess what comes right after that in the story:

The Rev. Tom Lambrecht of Faith Community Church in Greenville, who served as counsel for the church during the trial, expressed satisfaction with the jury's decision.

"I think it's a very creative penalty," Lambrecht said. "It recognizes that an offense was committed through the suspension, and it initiates a process that allows Rev. DeLong to reflect on what she's learned from this experience and perhaps share some of those learnings with the rest of the annual conference. It certainly lifts up the harm that was done to the clergy covenant and the adversarial spirit that was created within our annual conference over this issue."

Is it me or did the reporter just treat both sides with an equal dose of fairness?

At the same time, the writer lets the facts speak for themselves:

Lambrecht, the church counsel, did not make any statements at the pretrial meeting in the church's fellowship hall in the basement, a venue DeLong’s defense team has raised objections about for its limited audience seating.

Despite the objections, there were dozens of empty seats at the pretrial hearing.

But that's not the only gold nugget of solid journalism evident in these stories. The writer also makes sure to include details that help put the story in context, such as this:

The United Methodist Church permits gay and lesbian ministers to serve as long as they remain celibate.

And this:

In the U.S., the United Methodist Church has nearly 8 million lay members and 46,000 ministers. There are nearly 500 United Methodist Church congregations in the state of Wisconsin, including about 50 in northeast Wisconsin.

That's routine background in a story such as this. But you'd be surprised how often journalists fail to include the nuts and bolts taught in Journalism 101. Kudos to this writer and 50,000-circulation daily for doing so.

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