Clarity for ‘American Baptists’?

I think that the typical reader understands what it means when a newspaper runs a “correction.” It means, “We messed up. We printed something that was inaccurate. Here is the correct information.”

A correction is what the leaders of the American Baptist Churches/USA requested at the start of this month, during that firestorm of coverage about the Southern Baptist mission workers from Idaho who were arrested in Haiti and accused of trying to rush 33 needy children over the border into the Dominican Republic.

The problem, of course, is that many journalists kept calling these mission workers “American Baptists.” Thus, the leaders of the actual American Baptists sent out a letter that said, in part:

While the people involved are Baptists from the United States, they are not American Baptists, a title belonging to the churches who are part of the American Baptist Churches/USA based in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Please correct this. …

The Washington Post was one of the newsrooms that used the “American Baptist” label — several times, in fact. For me, it was just as important that the newspaper called these short-mission workers “American Baptists” — as in Baptists from America — without then identifying that they came from Southern Baptist congregations that were, yes, in Idaho (far from the South, in other words). Anyone who knows anything about America’s second largest religious body knows that the Southern Baptist Convention is now truly national.

Now, after nearly a month, the Post has printed the following:

A-section articles on Feb. 2 and Feb 5, about members of a U.S. Baptist group charged with kidnapping after they tried to leave Haiti with 33 children, referred to the group members as American Baptists. The group is associated with churches of the Southern Baptist Convention and is not part of American Baptist Churches USA.

Amen. Now, the only strange thing about this note is that the newspaper referred to this material as a “clarification,” not a “correction.” In other words, the Post team felt that it only needed to “clarify” its earlier errors, not “correct” them.

Here’s a typical definition of the word in question:

clar*i*fy

v. clar*i*fied, clar*i*fy*ing, clar*i*fies …

1. To make clear or easier to understand; elucidate: clarified her intentions.
2. To clear of confusion or uncertainty: clarify the mind.

So the information was not inaccurate, it was simply unclear. It wasn’t wrong, it was merely hard to understand. The Post did not, in fact, make an error. So there.

Well, what is hard to understand? While it may have been unclear whether the newspaper was writing about “American Baptists” or “Baptists from America,” the coverage kept denying readers the crucial fact that the mission workers were linked to Southern Baptist churches, but not, I would add, the actual foreign mission agency of the Southern Baptist Convention. That’s crucial information.

OK, in newspaper terms, what’s the difference between a “correction” and a “clarification”? What are journalists trying to say when this particular hair is split?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Ira Rifkin

    American Baptists was, technically, not incorrect. So a clarification is what’s called for.

    However, it should have come sooner and the offending term should have been dropped as soon as its double meaning was brought to the media’s attention.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Ira:

    Do you think it was an important fact that they came from America’s second largest religious body, after the Catholic Church?

    If the Post had called them Southern Baptists and they were from an American Baptist church in Charlotte, N.C., would you say the same thing?

  • Martha

    “What are journalists trying to say when this particular hair is split?”

    Our lawyers tell us that you haven’t a snowball in Hell’s chance of winning a libel action, so we’ll be gracious and condescend to pander to your little whims about factual accuracy but we don’t think we were wrong in the first place.

  • tmatt

    MARTHA:

    Libel is irrelevant.

    I think this is the question to ponder: If the Post had called them Southern Baptists and they were from an American Baptist church in Charlotte, N.C., would you say the same thing? Would that require a correction?

  • tmatt

    Oh, and Martha: You work for the Washington Post, thus the “we” in your statement?

  • Peter

    Since the newspaper wasn’t wrong, just unclear, a clarification was appropriate. American was describing nationality, not denomination. The fact it referred to a denomination represents a lack of clarity, not an error.

  • Ira Rifkin

    tmatt:

    You’re mixing apples and oranges. More precisely, nationality with denominational afffiliation. Baptists from Idaho are American (as in their passports) Baptists, regardless of the denomination they are aligned with.

    Is that confusing because a denomination also calls itself American Baptist? Sure. Hence the need for more info or as newspapers like to call them after the fact clarifications

    I also think the size of the denomination in question is irrelevant to the issue at hand

  • http://markbyron.typepad.com/main/ Mark Byron

    “Clarification” does fit, since there is a double meaning for American here; they were Baptists who were American but not part of the American Baptist denomination. Most of the people in the Washington Post would be clueless as to the double meaning, like many are clueless of the sexual undertones of “teabagger.”

    The correction that’s needed is to make people in the newsroom more theologically literate, which is why this site is here.

  • DaveC

    That’s crucial information.

    I think it comes down to whether the reporter(s) consider this crucial information or not and whether they think the readers would care or not. While reporters should get the facts right, for the average reader, the difference between various brands of Protestant Christianity is not important, much less the difference between various kinds of Baptists.

  • Ben

    What Ira said. By issuing a clarification they are saying they were using American to describe nationality not sect.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    So no one really cares what this looks like to the American Baptist leaders? What happened to the Poynter.org (and others) concept of accuracy being defined by the stakeholders, the people affected?

    And no one has taken on this other combination of region and denominational tie. Would this be accurate, something only worthy of a clarification?

    If the Post had called them Southern Baptists and they were from an American Baptist church in Charlotte, N.C., would you say the same thing?

  • Amanda

    Still, the Post’s (and other papers’) use of the phrase “American Baptist” was strange. I can’t imagine, had the church been Roman Catholic, that the papers would have referred to an “American Roman Catholic church” or “American Catholic church.” An Idaho Catholic church, or Idaho Baptists, would have been a more plausible phrasing.

    As a member of an American Baptist church in DC, believe me, I cared. I think a lot of readers of the Post aren’t aware of the American Baptist denomination, and potentially poorly reported newspaper stories where no one is sure about the facts — that aren’t even about the American Baptist denomination — is not good publicity.

  • Ron Troup

    A one who holds ordination within American Baptist Churches/USA, I do think it that fair reporting should have included from the beginning the fact that these missionaries were sponsored by Southern Baptist congregations. What I find disturbing about the Post’s handling of this matter is the length of time it took to address it. This was a story for many days; they should have clarified much sooner.

    This reminds me of a news story from years ago where a church in the southwestern US was identified as an American Baptist Church. As it turned out, it was a member of the American Baptist Association (see http://www.abaptist.org), a denomination different from ABC/USA.

  • Suzanne

    tmatt:

    She may correct me, but I think Martha was being sarcastic.

  • Ben

    If the Post had called them Southern Baptists and they were from an American Baptist church in Charlotte, N.C., would you say the same thing?

    Yes, if what the writer and editors meant was Baptist located in the Southern part of the United States. It would be a clarification because under some readings of the ambiguous language it would be factually correct and under some readings it could be factually wrong. So it would matter then what the intended usage was.

    That said, because Southern Baptist is so much more recognizable as a sect, and the use of Southern as a purely geographic term is so much more obscure than American, the poor word usage would be much less forgivable. And, I also agree that this should not have taken a month to clarify.

  • Ben

    I also don’t really understand why clarification vs correction means so much to you, Terry. Isn’t the important thing that this got fixed? It seems like you are looking for some form of repentance.

  • Bob Smietana

    Ira’s right — the “American” in “American Baptist” referred to nationality, not denomination.

    There’s no error in the Post stories. But there was confusion, hence the clarification.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    BOB:

    The post already admits that it stood for Baptists who are Americans.

    Where in the story does it identify them as Southern Baptists? You are saying that their denominational identity is not a crucial fact?

  • Martha

    tmatt, no, that was the royal “We”.

    Also, since there is indeed a body called “American Baptists” (which even yr. ignt. srvnt. here knew, and I’m all the way over on the opposite side of the Atlantic), then it’s more than merely a clarification; it’s a correction.

    No, I don’t work for the “Washington Post” nor even take the paper, but I wonder if the attitude there was “Baptists are Baptists are Baptists” and they either did not know or did not care that by saying “A group of American Baptists” they could be understood to mean “belonging to the American Baptist denomination” and not “Baptists who are American”. And yes, I would expect them to correct themselves if they’d called a group of American Baptists Southern Baptists.

    Don’t we have this same argument every time some splinter group is written up as “Catholic” in the news and it then has to be clarified that they’re not Roman Catholic or whatever? Like the ladies who say they’re Catholic priests?

  • Dave

    The phrase “American Baptist” was misleading — and I caught it the first time I heard it on PBS — but I don’t object to WaPo printing a clarification rather than a correction. They hadn’t said anything derogatory about the ABC/USA.

    And, yes, I would hold the same opinion if the phrase had been “Southern Baptist,” though the SBC is much better known.

    That being said, this is a case of the press not getting religion. They didn’t know that “American Baptist” has a particular meaning. If they hadn’t know that “Southern Baptist” has a particular meaning they’d’ve been even worse at not getting religion.

  • http://www.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    I agree that a clarification (rather than correction) was appropriate here, although the wording of “American Baptists” to mean Baptists from America does seem a bit strange. Why not U.S. Baptists?

    And in light of the fact that there are so many kinds of Baptists, referring to them as Southern Baptists from the start certainly should have been expected. At least when I first saw the coverage, my first question was what kind of Baptists they were. Even the AP says that the word “Roman” should be used on first reference to Roman Catholics, and there’s much less chance of misunderstanding there than there would be with Baptists.

  • Wolfwood

    At the same time, though, this is what happens when a denomination has such a common name. It’s not like the Orthodox, where capitalization matters. While it’s nice for a paper to add a clarification, calling these people “American Baptists” is not misleading.


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