Yes, calling evangelical pastors 'priests' is a mistake: But who made that mistake?

It's time for a quick trip into my GetReligion folder of guilt to deal with a headline on a report at NBC.com that annoyed several faithful readers.

That headline: "20 evangelical priests among those killed in Cuban plane crash."

Yes, you read that right -- "evangelical priests."

Now, that's a rather basic mistake and it's easy to point that out. However, in this case, the more interesting question is this one: Who actually made this mistake and why did they make it?

The easy answer is to say that the editor who wrote the headline got confused or just didn't care about the facts. At the very least, the headline writer passed along a mistake made by a different journalist earlier in the reporting and editing process.

Let's look for clues at the top of the report. Here is the lede:

Twenty evangelical priests are among more than 100 people killed when a plane crashed outside of Havana on Friday, according to The Associated Press.

Ah, so this was an AP mistake. Hold that thought, while we read on a bit.

“On that plane were 10 couples of pastors. 20 people. All of the Nazarene Church in the eastern region,” confirmed Maite Quesada, a member the Cuban Council of Churches.
The group spent several days at a meeting in the capital and were returning to their homes and places of worship in the province of Holguin. ... AP cited Cuba's Transportation Minister Adel Yzquierdo as saying that 110 people were killed in the accident. The minister said authorities were investigating the cause of the crash.
"We have the black box in our hands, in good condition," he said, according to Reuters.

Well, this much is certain -- The Church of the Nazarene is an evangelical Protestant flock linked to pietism and the revivals and renewal movements that followed in the wake of the life and ministry of the great reformer John Wesley. I have never heard anyone call a Nazarene pastor a "priest."

Note also that the representative of the Cuban Council of Churches, in a direct quote, refers to the crash victims as "pastors."

However, if you dig back and find the original Associated Press story, there is this paraphrased quote lede:

The Cuban Council of Churches says 20 priests from an evangelical church are among the dead in the Havana plane crash.

That is followed by the Quesada quote that refers to "pastors" killed in the crash -- not priests.

So who turned these evangelical pastors into "priests"?

It wasn't someone at NBC, other than they fact that someone didn't say "Wait a minute" before passing along that mistake in the headline. Was it someone at the Associated Press? To further complicate matters, note the passing reference to material taken from a Reuters report.

So someone from the AP heard or read quotes about "pastors" and then said, "Pastors are priests, right?"

I don't think so. I think it was the official at the Cuban Council of Churches who -- working in a culture steeped in Catholic history and culture -- used these two terms interchangeably without thinking about it.

Then some general assignment reporter simply wrote that down and wrote it into the original report. Then that material was rewritten at AP, before it was picked up -- aggregation style -- by someone at NBC.

But there is a journalism lesson here, or maybe two.

On one level, it's more evidence that newsrooms need at least one religion-beat professional involved in the everyday news process. When I worked in large newsrooms, people -- copy editors, wire-desk specialists -- were constantly walking over to my desk and asking questions about religious terms and facts. I was a human reference book.

At the same time, this simple mistake also shows how important it is for editors and stylebook teams to "get" the complicated the world of religion. Would someone call a rabbi a "priest" or refer to the head of a local mosque as a "rabbi"? Probably not.

So when a story shows up on the news wires referring to evangelical pastors as "priests," it's OK to stop and say, "Wait a minute. That can't be right." Of course, unless we are talking about low-church or charismatic Anglicans, in which case you might have some priests who also call themselves "evangelicals."

Like I said, religion is complicated.

Editors! Hire yourself a professional to serve as a human stylebook in your newsroom. You need one, whether you know it or not.

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