Three keys to quality journalism on the Godbeat, and one All-Star who's mastered all three (updated)

A GetReligion reader sent us a link to a story on Christians who are gay and celibate.

The reader said:

Been reading for some months now and learning much about assessing news story content. The above got picked up by my local paper, the Augusta Chronicle, today. I was pleased to note the quote distribution and the sympathetic ear given Mr. Hill, whose work I've often read. Your thoughts?

After clicking the link, I immediately recognized the byline:

Peter Smith is the award-winning Godbeat pro for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Based on past posts, you might say we're fans here at GetReligion:

What makes Smith's story on Christians who are gay and celibate a journalistic success?

Two of the same factors cited by the discerning reader who emailed us stood out to me — although I'll characterize those factors slightly differently. Plus, a third factor deserves mention.

1. Respectful tone: What the reader labels a "sympathetic ear," I'll put under the category of "respectful tone."

Smith always gives his sources a fair hearing. He doesn't take sides. He quotes sources accurately and represents their point of view in such a way that they undoubtedly recognize themselves in the news copy — as opposed to journalists who might bring their own worldview and snarky spin to such a story.

In this story, that respectful tone is evident way up high:

Wesley Hill is convinced that taking a road less traveled doesn’t have to be a lonely journey.
Mr. Hill, a professor at Trinity School for Ministry in Ambridge, and a small corps of other writers around the country have churned out a small library of books and blog posts, united in a single premise.
They believe gay Christians can and should affirm their sexual orientation — but should also commit to celibacy.
The stance runs counter to the growing American majority that supports legalized same-sex marriage among Americans, including religious progressives, as the U.S. Supreme Court weighs a landmark case on whether to legalize it nationwide.
But it also challenges many of his fellow Christian conservatives who still oppose any affirmation of being gay, even in celibacy. 
“I sometimes joke that my life would be easier if I were a more straightforwardly ex-gay approach or a more straightforwardly same-sex marriage approach,” said Mr. Hill. 
Mr. Hill, an associate professor of biblical studies, remains convinced of the traditional Christian interpretation of Scripture that limits valid sexual expression to marriage between a man and a woman. He said he’s known from his early teens, when he recognized an innate attraction to other men, that such a marriage was never going to be for him.

2. Multiple sources: When the reader mentions "quote distribution," I think he's referring to the wide range of sources quoted by Smith.

Treating the key figure in this story respectfully doesn't mean Smith hands the megaphone to him alone. Rather, the Post-Gazette writer quotes Christian critics — to the left and right of Hill — as well as Hill's Anglican pastor and a Catholic writer who also identifies with the gay-and-celibate movement.

From the story:

“To substitute friendship in place of same-gender loving partnership or marriage is to say there still is an element of sin in being homosexual or same-gender-loving,” said the Rev. Shanea Leonard, pastor of Judah Fellowship Christian Church on the North Side.
“If someone chooses to be celibate or chooses to not marry because they feel God has called them to that, that’s one thing,“ said Rev. Leonard. “But to choose that based on sexual orientation is to deny the gift of sexuality that God has given us, and I don’t think that’s a part of God’s plan. When I read the sacred texts and read Scripture through the loving lens of Jesus Christ, I don’t see a condemnation of same-gender loving relationships. What I see over and over again is the reoccurring theme of love.”
And some evangelical conservatives oppose the affirmation of a gay orientation even without sexual activity.
“When one feels himself desiring a sexual relationship with a person of the same-sex, the only appropriate response is repentance from sin,” wrote Denny Burk, a professor at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Ky., in a response to Mr. Hill’s writings.
For Mr. Hill, though, “what we in the modern world have labeled the phenomenon of being gay has a lot of different components” beyond sexual desire. It also informs choices of friends and tastes in everything from books to movies. “If I were a priest and had a gay person in my congregation, I would want to know what in this person’s experience can be baptized and celebrated and used as a gift,” he said.

By quoting multiple sources, Smith provides important context and peels back the nuanced layers of the issue at hand.

3. Interesting angle: When's the last time you read a story on gay-and-celibate Christians in a major newspaper? (Update: Smith thanked me for this post but pointed out that two other Godbeat All-Stars covered this topic last year: Michelle Boorstein with the Washington Post and former GetReligionista Sarah Pulliam Bailey in her time with Religion News Service. My point remains the same: This is not a story that has been overdone.)

Like the best journalists, Smith has a knack for finding compelling stories that a million other reporters haven't already covered and telling them in a fresh and interesting way. 

Did I mention that we're big fans here at GetReligion? Pittsburgh readers are truly blessed.

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