Did not paper report what Piper did not say?

Read the lede to this Minneapolis Star-Tribune story, and tell me if it doesn’t make your head spin:

Two key conservative evangelical leaders in Minnesota are not endorsing the marriage amendment or directing followers to vote for it, marking the first time during debate over the measure that major faith leaders have not encouraged members to take a stand on the issue.

Did anybody catch the double negative there? The two not’s are a crucial element of the story.

Keep reading:

Influential preacher and theologian the Rev. John Piper came out against gay marriage during a sermon Sunday but did not explicitly urge members of his Minneapolis church to vote for the amendment.

The Rev. Leith Anderson, former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s longtime pastor, also said this week he does not plan to take a public side on the amendment, which would change the state Constitution to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

Did not explicitly urge members of his church to vote for the amendment? Sooooooo … did he urge them to vote for it or not?

Religious observers say the lack of formal backing from the two influential figures could signal that evangelical leaders in Minnesota are taking a less active role in supporting the amendment — a marked departure from evangelicals in dozens of other states where similar amendments have passed.

Could signal?

Go ahead and read the whole story. Then tell me: Am I the only one who finds this story rather squishy on facts and long on conjecture?

It appears that the reporter listened to Piper’s sermon online and decided to run with the angle chosen. I’m just not certain the writer fully grasped the entirety — or all the subtlety — of what the pastor was trying to say.

What would have been fascinating, I think, is if the reporter had interviewed a few ordinary church members who actually heard the sermon. What did they take home from it? Did they leave the church building more or less likely to vote for the marriage amendment?

Piper himself has challenged the accuracy of the report on his blog:

The part that they got right was that I did not give a public endorsement for any legislation or candidate.

But they got two parts wrong.

First they say, “Key Minnesota pastors opt out of marriage fight.” I didn’t opt out. I opted in. What is at stake more than anything else is the meaning of marriage and how important it is for the common good and for the glory of Christ. That was the main burden of the message. Marriage is the sexual and covenantal union of a man and a woman pledging life-long allegiance to each other as husband and wife. There is no such thing as so-called same-sex “marriage.” That is clear in God’s word.

The second mistake is to say that I “have not encouraged members to take a stand on the issue.” That is, in fact, the opposite of what I was saying in the last two points of my message (points 7 and 8).

The Star-Tribune itself has published a response from a reader who argues:

The reporter must not have listened to or read Piper’s wise and compassionate sermon, because no one could hear or read his words and conclude that Piper has opted out of the fight for marriage. In unequivocal language, Piper provided clear guidance to Christians on the issue of amending constitutions to protect marriage.

Piper concluded by saying, “If the whole counsel of God is preached with power week in and week out, Christians who are citizens of heaven and citizens of this democratic order will be energized as they ought to speak and act for the common good.”

If this is what “opting out of the marriage fight” looks like, let’s hope and pray that countless pastors across the country opt out as John Piper has.

Wowza.

Turns out that reporting accurately what someone said on a complicated subject matter can be a gargantuan task. That apparently goes double — as in double negative – when attempting to report what they didn’t say.

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    “Did anybody catch the double negative there?” How could you not? ;)

    This kind of reporting is not unusual for the Strib. They’re, of course, pushing against the amendment. All of their articles on it are sympathetic to those who oppose it. If they can take anything anyone says and make it seem as if the state has turned against the amendment, they will do that.

    Interestingly, I was at a fund-raising banquet for my employer, Relevant Radio, in Minneapolis. I was at a table with a lawyer who started a group called Minnesota Lawyers for Marriage. He told me that the polls are running in favor of the amendment — something which simply has not been reported in the MSM here.

    All this tells me that the MSM want an outcome and they will do whatever they can to manipulate the public to get that outcome.

  • http://authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    Hmmm…. Religious media observers say the lack of actual reporting of religious figures’ sermons and perspective from actual witnesses by a reporter could signal that the reporter is taking a more active role in promoting a particular position on an issue — a marked coordination with reporters in dozens of other media where similar positions are promoted.

  • Martha

    It’s an example of the view that the various amendments and protests are political in nature and not really about “religious liberty” or “protecting marriage”, so therefore a sermon is a stand-in for a speech calling for political action.

    Therefore the reader is supposed to read between the lines: ah, those wily political operators are not making overt calls (where they could be criticised in public for interfering in the democratic process of voting for or against various things) but their coded messages to their congregants are being passed on!

  • http://www.conservativemormonmom.blogspot.com E B

    Reporting accurately assumes that they WANT to report accurately. Which they usually don’t. They want to promote a liberal agenda, always. That’s why articles are biased against religions and conservatives, and for secularlists and Democrats. Read Breitbart and you’ll see what I mean, or listen to or read Rush Limbaugh. Or any of a host of other venues that call out liberals on their biased reporting.

  • Mark C.

    I read this report when it was posted last week. If I didn’t know better, I’d think a different article was being referenced here. You’ve taken one sentence that may or may not be warranted, and made it the whole of the story and used it to say it was long on conjecture and short on facts. The bulk of the article is reporting not about possible singles (the conjecture) but about what various individuals say about endorsing the amendment and the topic of same-sex marriage. The point of the article is much more subtle than just pro or con Amendment or same-sex marriage.

    There seems to be a tendency here to see individual articles, and what they report, as worlds unto themselves. Or, if that is a bit strong, that they don’t have context that isn’t explicitly reported in the article. That sells readers of news short, in my estimation, for they do not come to such stories tabula rasa. Here in Minnesota we have other religious leaders who have been rather explicit in their endorsements of the amendment, and their encouragement of members to vote for the amendment. The Minnesota Catholic Conference particularly comes to mind. There is thus a difference to be noted between these evangelical pastors who do teach in opposition to same-sex marriage but won’t rally members to the amendment, and other religions leaders who do both. That isn’t likely to be lost on local readers who are keeping up with this particular issue.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    You’ve taken one sentence that may or may not be warranted,

    My apologies for focusing on that gigantic, unproven claim at the very beginning of the news story. What was I thinking?

    My argument was not that there’s not a potential story here. My argument was that this particular story was atrocious.

  • http://getreligion.org Bobby Ross Jr.

    I probably snapped off that last response too quickly. What I should have said: In a news story, the lede is the bread and butter on which the rest of the story hinges. It should be clear and accurate and not oversell what is proven deeper down. In this case, the lede is much too strong for the mushy quicksand underneath.

  • northcoast

    Wait a minute. Are clergy supposed to tell people how to vote in Minnesota? What happened to that church and state thing?

    Can we write that the reporter has not explicitly endorsed the first amendment?

  • Mark Baddeley

    I think part of the problem is how tone deaf journalists are. Piper just got the ‘Pope’ experience – a sermon that focuses on the theological and ethical structures of the issue in the public square and which does not explicitly micromanage how people vote in an upcoming vote is read (or, more cynically, just presented) as a bunch of a tea leaves about some kind of change in Catholicism’s/conservative evangelicalism’s approach to the issue.

    It’s Yes Prime Minister redux and inverted. Church leaders want to talk morality, but journalists are listening only for the politics. And so, ironically, they mishear the political implications completely.

  • Mark C.

    Thank you for posting a second time, Bobby. But it does seem to me that the comments about a possible signal of a different role for some leaders, four paragraphs into the story, isn’t what’s leading the story (see paragraphs one to three for that) but a suggested analysis that “observers” have passed along. The biggest problem here is that the “observers” are neither named nor quoted. As I read the story, that was a small part of it that could easily have been removed (and probably should have) without significantly changing the story as a whole. I think the article should be taken as a whole, and not characterized on the basis of the fourth paragraph (or even the first two or three).

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Northcoast:

    Pastors are allowed to preach to their hearts content on doctrines and social issues linked to them.

    The key is when pastors PERSONALIZE issues, in the form of calls for or against CANDIDATES.

    That is not the issue here. The pastors preached sermons on an ancient and consistent Christian doctrine on marriage and family. That is RELEVANT to politics, but the doctrinal stand is what it is.

  • Kristen

    Yup. It’s telling that the pastor took the time later to pointedly remind people that he did NOT tell people how to vote on the actual bill that will be presented to the people.

    Even though the law only prohibits taking a stand on candidates, most church pastors I have met would not want attention drawn to them as being “politically powerful,” because it invites greater scrutiny regarding candidate races.

    This listing of advice for Church Pastors with respect to politics and 501(c)3 status was really interesting to me.
    http://www.mnvoter.com/documents/Pastors_Guidelines_2012_rev_042012.pdf

  • northcoast

    A letter in my local paper starts, “On Mother’s Day weekend a local church chose to cross the line between church and state and take a strong stand on Referendum 74.” The Evergreen State legislature has passed a marriage equality law. Referendum 74 would rescind that law, and there has been a stream of letters expressing the same opinion.

    I don’t think the editor has taken any pain to clarify the rules as tmatt and Kristen have done.

  • John M.

    Tmatt,

    I know you know this, but a pastor can endorse and un-endorse candidates to his heart’s content provided that he’s not a part of a 501(c)3 organization. The reason why most pastors don’t take direct stands on elections has nothing at all to do with the First Amendment: it’s IRS rules on the tax-exempt status of churches.

    -John


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