Journalism 2018: The name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline

It seems like just yesterday that I was complaining about an incomplete, slanted Washington Post story on a controversial religious topic.

Actually, it was last Monday.

In that post (titled "Not the right kind of paper to report both sides? About that story on fired Catholic teacher"), I noted — not for the first time — that it's often difficult these days, even in the Post, to tell what's supposed to be real news and what's simply clickbait and/or aggregation.

Today, I come to you with another Post story on a controversial religious topic. Except this time I intend to offer praise, not criticism.

Welcome to the world of Jekyll-and-Hyde media criticism.

Yes, this new story has one of those clickbait-style headlines at which the Post specializes online:

This former gymnast raised an army to take on Larry Nassar. Can she take on sex abuse in churches next?

But unlike the previous story, this one — by a different writer and perhaps handled by different editors (who knows?) — addresses the complex topic in a fair, impartial manner.

The lede:

Rachael Denhollander’s children recently asked her a question that continues to show her the cost of coming forward against sports physician and convicted sex offender Larry Nassar, a campaign which has given her a platform to speak out about a sexual abuse scandal in Sovereign Grace Ministries, a network of churches mostly based across the United States.
Last month, Denhollander’s statement in Nassar’s sentencing turned her into a Christian celebrity. In her victim statement in court, the former gymnast said her advocacy for sexual assault survivors “cost me my church.” Her own children recently asked her about this, why they stopped going to the church they belonged to for five years.
“It was painful to have to search for a church again because we really, really loved the people at our former church,” she said.
“That simply was part of the cost of coming forward” as one of Nassar’s victims, she added, and also speaking out against how churches handle sex abuse allegations.
Denhollander, who declined to name her former church, said she and her husband, Jacob, left the Louisville church in 2017 because of elders’ lack of response to the concerns she has described as “the intentional failure to report sexual assault perpetrated in multiple churches, by multiple elders, at Sovereign Grace Ministries.” Their church was not part of Sovereign Grace Ministries (now Sovereign Grace Churches), she said, but it did support the organization, which had been accused of covering up cases of child molestation. A class-action lawsuit was dismissed in 2014 for reasons including statute of limitations issues, and current leaders of Sovereign Grace Churches say those accusations are “completely false.”

The piece is fact-based and allows those accused of wrongdoing an opportunity to present their case.

There are plenty of URL links embedded in this story. But unlike the previous one, this piece does not come across as thinly reported, stringed-together aggregation. Instead, the links seem to offer exclamation points to the strong, informed reporting in the story.

In a perfect world, the Post would aspire to make all of the journalism it produces adhere to this same high standard, as opposed to the tabloid-style clickbait we considered last time (and have highlighted in the past ... when we're not busy praising the Post's religion writers, who are some of the best in the business).

I used the term Jekyll-and-Hyde media criticism earlier, somewhat in jest. But maybe there's a serious lesson there for readers: That is, we live in an era in which the name on the masthead frequently is not as crucial as the one on the byline.

I don't know Lori Johnston, the Post freelancer who produced the Nassar piece. But this is the second time I've felt compelled to praise her work. The first time was last month when she highlighted Denhollander's words on faith and forgiveness in her victim impact statement at the Nassar trial. On the other hand, the critical post I did last week was not the first time I've encountered the same problems with a story by the same author. 

Bottom line: The 2018 journalism landscape is complicated. Be careful out there, folks, and avoid making blanket statements about large news organizations (preaching to myself here as much as anyone!). 

P.S. GetReligion focuses on secular news organizations. But for those interested in more on Denhollander's story, Christianity Today (full disclosure: I freelance for CT from time to time) has offered some of the best reporting, including this strong interview piece by Morgan Lee.

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