A don't-miss-it deep dive: New York Times delivers a factual, balanced portrait of John Allen Chau

Here’s the must-read religion story of this past weekend: the New York Times’ front-page treatment Saturday of the tragic death of missionary John Allen Chau.

I’ll offer a few quick grades (on a report-card scale of A to F) on the in-depth piece before urging you to read it:

• Readability: A.

Filled with “astounding details,” this is an exceptional read that immediately draws in readers.

The compelling opening anecdote (my apologies for copying and pasting so much text, but it’s crucial information):

Just months before undertaking the most forbidding journey in his life as a young missionary to a remote Indian Ocean island, John Allen Chau was blindfolded and dropped off on a dirt road in a remote part of Kansas.

After a long walk, he found a mock village in the woods inhabited by missionaries dressed in odd thrift-store clothes, pretending not to understand a word he said. His role was to preach the gospel. The others were supposed to be physically aggressive. Some came at him with fake spears, speaking gibberish.

It was part of an intensive and somewhat secretive three-week missionary training camp. Mary Ho, the international executive leader for All Nations, the organization that ran the training, said, “John was one of the best participants in this experience that we have ever had.”

For Mr. Chau, 26, the boot camp was the culmination of years of meticulous planning that involved linguistics training and studying to become an emergency medical technician, as well as forgoing full-time jobs so he could travel and toughen himself up.

He did it all with the single-minded goal of breaking through to the people of North Sentinel Island, a remote outpost of hunters and gatherers in the Andaman Sea who had shown tremendous hostility to outsiders.

• Sourcing: A.

The byline includes the names of four reporters, which gives a clue to the level of resources devoted to this story.

Up high, the paper offers this summary that confirms that initial assessment:

A review of hundreds of pages of his journals and blog postings, as well as interviews with two dozen people from around the world — fellow missionaries, family members and relatives of fishermen in the Andaman Islands — reveal a portrait of a joyful adventurer with a zest for life who resisted all warnings, despite being told repeatedly he might be killed.

• Balance and fairness: B.

Again, nice job by the Times.

I must echo the assessment of King’s College journalism professor Paul Glader, who called this “excellent, factual reporting.”

I’m grading down slightly because of the “fundamentalist” label mentioned in the next section. Also, there are great evangelical experts cited — very, very briefly — in the piece. Where is the additional background they could have brought to this debate?

Also, see the crucial information — basic facts about Chau and his work — featured in this Washington Post op-ed essay by Ed Stetzer of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College.

Religious expertise: C.

Maybe I’m grading too low here, but I’m trying to keep this from being a total “puff piece” critique.

On the positive side, the Times does an admirable job of quoting and defining the Great Commission:

In the Book of Matthew, the resurrected Jesus says: “Go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”

This passage is known as the Great Commission, and several of Mr. Chau’s friends said that more than anything else, it explained why Mr. Chau did what he did.

But the newspaper’s description of Oral Roberts University — Chau’s alma mater — as a “fundamentalist Christian institution” tripped me up. Yes, this F-word issue has been addressed many times here at GetReligion, but it remains important.

Regular GetReligion readers know what the Associated Press Stylebook says about use of that term:

fundamentalist The word gained usage in an early-20th-century fundamentalist-modernist controversy within Protestantism. In recent years, however, fundamentalist has to a large extent taken on pejorative connotations except when applied to groups that stress strict, literal interpretations of Scripture and separation from other Christians.

In general, do not use fundamentalist unless a group applies the word to itself.

Yes, the Times has its own stylebook, and I don’t know what, if anything, it says about “fundamentalist.”

The question here: Is “fundamentalist” accurate in relation to ORU? No less an expert than GetReligion’s own Richard Ostling, the retired religion writer for The Associated Press and Time magazine, says it does not.

Ostling told me in an email:

"no" if only because of its charismatic, Pentecostal aspect that true Fundamentalists dislike, plus Oral's own "mainline" UMC  past.

"Evangelical" is broader and more apt 

I suppose from secular standpoint any fervent evangelist is "fundy" but such folks are certainly "evangelicals." Not acquainted with his sponsoring agencies.

For more insight on the fundamentalist question, see this 2011 column by GetReligion Editor Terry Mattingly.

Surprises: A-plus.

As mentioned earlier, some of the details about Chau revealed by the Times will blow your mind.

One example:

Friends said he did not expect to die and had taken all precautions he could think of to survive, including packing what he called an “initial contact response kit” with dental forceps to remove arrows.

Oh my!

• Overall grade: B.

Sadly, that one word choice — plus a few hard facts that are missing — keeps this otherwise fantastic piece from receiving the top grade. But in journalism, words matter, particularly when those words are “labels” assigned to people’s religious beliefs, words that frame a story.

Your turn: By all means, read the full story and let us know whether you agree with our grades or how yours would be different. Comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

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