Atlanta fire chief gets $1.2 million settlement: Journalists still avoid all Bible references

Once upon a time, you could count on newspapers offering readers the most complete, detailed, nuanced versions of most major news stories.

Pros on the religion beat (I plead guilty) used to look down our noses, quite frankly, at the short, blunt, even chopped-up reports offered by TV news teams — if they bothered to cover religion news at all.

Then along came the Internet and things got more complex, with more radio and television newsrooms posting solid, full-text versions of their stories on their websites. At the same time, alas, falling advertising revenues cut the hearts out of many local and regional print newsrooms — often costing them their religion-beat scribes.

The results can be painful. It doesn’t help when editors look the other way as stories veer away from news reporting, with many reports evolving into hit pieces and advocacy journalism.

There’s a story back in the news that serves as a fine example of this sad trend.

You may recall seeing stories from major news outlets back in 2015 when Atlanta fired its fire chief because of controversial content in a book he wrote. Click here for some GetReligion background on that. Now, we have an update in Atlanta-area media:

ATLANTA — The city of Atlanta has settled a lawsuit with a former fire chief over his firing for a book containing passages which some saw as anti-gay.

The Atlanta City Council approved a settlement agreeing to pay fired Atlanta fire chief Kelvin Cochran $1.2 million.

In 2013, Cochran wrote a book about his Christian faith titled "Who Told You That You Were Naked?" for a men's Bible study and gave it to around a dozen subordinates he said had either requested copies or shared his beliefs.

In the book, Cochran characterized homosexuality as a perversion. According to city lawyer David Gevertz, the book lumped together gay people, those who have sex outside of marriage and non-Christians with murderers, rapists, pedophiles and those who engage in bestiality, city lawyer David Gevertz said Friday.

That’s a safe, cautious, accurate lede, especially when dealing a subject that is controversial — to say the least. This story, which included Associated Press material, ran on the website of Fox 5 TV in Atlanta.

I will note that I thought it was rather strange to use this wording — “Cochran characterized homosexuality as a perversion” — when the fire chief, in six pages of his book, had described the contents of several Bible passages. Also, the use of the phrase “the book lumped together” only added to the confusion, making it sound like Cochran had created his own list of sins, as opposed to quoting materials drawn from scripture.

As always, let me stress that reporters do not have to agree with people who quote the Bible in order to report their views accurately, including the source of those views.

In this case, we are dealing with one of the most controversial words in Judeo-Christian tradition — “abominations.” However, I think it’s safe to say that Atlanta is a city in which many readers are familiar with the Bible. Why not include a short reference to the fact that Cochran was quoting scripture, as opposed to spouting his own opinions?

Thus, I do have a few issues with this Fox 5 report. However, it was way, way better than the abomination that ran at The Atlanta Journal Constitution, where editors appear to have settled for mere aggregation when dealing with the latest chapter in a complicated local story, one that had sparked national-level headlines.

I’m not making this up. Here is the overture:

The City of Atlanta has agreed to a $1.2 million settlement with an ex-Atlanta Fire chief over his firing after he wrote a book that compared homosexuality to bestiality.

The city council approved the payout to Kelvin Cochran with a vote of 11-3, according to WSB Radio, which was at the city council meeting Monday.

Cochran filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against former Mayor Kasim Reed and the city after his termination in January 2015, saying he was fired because of his religion. Reed said he fired Cochran during his initial 30-day suspension because of poor judgment and insubordination.

Cochran wrote a religious book titled “Who Told You That You Are Naked?” which described homosexuality as “unclean” and grouped it with bestiality.

Once again, readers who didn’t know better would conclude that Cochran’s book was full of his own opinions on these topics, as opposed to quotations from the Bible. Was that the journalism goal, in this case?

Again let me stress that any mention of these subjects is going to be controversial.

Obviously, journalists have to let readers know what is going on. Thus, I am not saying that reporters should avoid the contents of Cochran’s book. What I am saying is that journalists should care enough about their craft to accurately describe the sources of his beliefs.

In the case of the AJC lede, it isn’t even accurate to yank “homosexuality” and “bestiality” out of the broader, more universal context of the Bible’s many “abominations” passages referenced by Cochran.

After all, “Lying lips” are also an “abomination to the LORD.”

This is complex stuff. Editors may need to approve one or two sentences of background material, including a Bible reference or two.

Let’s be careful out there.

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