Ready, OK? Cheerleading in Arizona

Just for the fun of it, pretend that you're a line editor at a 100,000-circulation newspaper in the Southwest -- say, the Arizona Daily Star in Tucson. Just for the sake of all our sanity, pretend that this story -- on the local Presbyterian response to the national denomination's move toward gay ordination -- is the reporter's first draft and not the actual 1,000 words of blatant cheerleading that appeared in the newspaper.

For this exercise to work, you must be interested in quality journalism as opposed to, say, social advocacy, public relations or editorials masquerading as news stories.

Ready, OK?

Let's start at the top:

Hallelujahs are sounding loudly from at least two local churches as members celebrate a long-sought change in the Presbyterian Church to fully include everyone regardless of their sexual or gender orientation.

St. Mark's Presbyterian Church has worked to remove obstacles for openly lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender ordination for more than two decades, and it officially joined the national movement, called More Light Presbyterians, in 2006.

Last month, the change came nationwide.

"It's been been a long wait, and St. Mark's is celebrating," said the Rev. Gusti Newquist. "Gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people are part of God's good creation, and when God calls them to serve as ministers, we should welcome them gratefully. God calls people to serve in the church and church policy should not be a barrier to answering God's call."

Now, if I'm the editor, I'd probably ask the reporter -- sans her pompoms -- to join me in my office and explain why she chose this lede. In the friendliest way possible, I'd ask questions such as: How representative is this opening to what's happening among all Presbyterian churches in the Tucson area? Where do the "at least two churches" you mentioned fit into the overall picture? Did you interview anybody from other churches in the area? What did they say? Even at the two churches mentioned, is there total agreement on the direction taken?

Then we'd move on to the story's nut graf -- in this case, two grafs:

Presbyterians in Minnesota's Twin Cities became the last needed presbytery - the name for a regional governing body - to vote in favor of eliminating all barriers to the ordination of lesbian, gay, bi-sexual and transgender people.

The Presbyterian Church in the United States, which includes nearly 2.4 million members, joins Lutheran, Episcopal and United Church of Christ denominations with its inclusive policy.

Before geting into the nitty-gritty of my questions, I'd point out to the reporter that AP style for this denomination is Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), not "Presbyterian Church in the United States."

And I'd ask for the source on the 2.4 million members. I'd note that I'm an avid New York Times reader and that the Times put the membership figure at about 2 million when it reported on the Twin Cities vote. I'd note that my AP stylebook -- 2007 version since my publication can't afford to buy one every year -- puts the membership figure at 3.5 million members. I suspect that the AP number is old, but as a skeptical journalist, it makes me wonder if -- just perhaps -- this denomination is hemorrhaging. If so, I'd tell the reporter that perhaps we might consider presenting a fuller picture than this glowing tribute to the gay-ordination change.

Then I'd apologize for digressing and move on to my real questions ...

I'd start with the elephant in the local newsroom: The local presbytery. I'd praise the reporter for finding a local angle on a national story. But as gently as possible, I'd ask: How did the local presbytery vote? Since I've advanced up to editor, I would know how to Google and find out that the local presbytery is known as the Presbytery de Cristo and includes about 30 congregations in southern Arizona and New Mexico. From reading the reporter's story, I would assume that everybody in the Presbytery de Cristo is all fired up excited about ordaining gays and lesbians as ministers.

But my Googling would have revealed otherwise: I'd know that despite everyone in the reporter's story praising the change, the vote in the Tucson presbytery was 62-62 0n Amendment 10-A. That tie vote, in fact, put the Presbytery de Cristo in the "no" column on this change and reflected a switch from the last time the local body voted on this issue. So while the reporter's story is about the excitement of local Presbyterians related to this change, the actual trend has been the other direction. I'd try to explain this to the eager young reporter in as nice a way as possible.

As for possible sources that might help balance the first draft, I'd do what all good editors do and search in my own newspaper's archive. In about two seconds, I'd find a 2006 Daily Star story on this same issue with some great potential contacts:

Several large local Presbyterian churches, among them St. Andrew's Presbyterian Church on the Northwest Side and Northminster Presbyterian Church on the North Side, want to ensure ordination is reserved for people who are chaste or in heterosexual marriages, and have argued against any changes to the denomination's constitution. On its Web site, St. Andrew's posted a notice opposing the result of this week's vote on ordination in Birmingham.

Northminster has joined the Confessing Movement within the denomination — a conservative movement that affirms a ban on elected homosexual church leaders. Shepherd of the Valley Presbyterian Church in Safford also is part of the Confessing Movement.

I'd also ask the reporter to be more specific when referring to Lutheran denominations adopting "inclusive" policies since it's my understanding that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod do not share the same policy on this question. While the vague reference in the reporter's story might be technically accurate, I'd err on the side of not confusing readers.

As my meeting with the reporter came to an end, I'd ask her to take another shot at her story. She'd probably fall all over herself apologizing for her rotten, one-sided first attempt. I'd pat her on the shoulder and tell her not to worry about it.

"That's why we have editors," I'd say, sheepishly. "I'm just doing my job."

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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