Pod people: The thin line between insight and hearsay

Earlier this week, I critiqued an Associated Press story on the hullabaloo caused by a newspaper column in which a pastor’s wife referred to Southern Baptists as “the crazy old paranoid uncle of evangelical Christians.”

I closed that post by questioning the AP’s sourcing at the end of the story:

Here’s my journalistic question: If you were the editor, would you be comfortable with that source and the information provided? Or would you hold out for a more official source? In other words, would you consider this source credible on deadline?

The chunk of the story in question:

First Baptist member Larry Wilson said Bill Thomas was accused of “intolerable insubordination” by a staff committee and was told to submit a letter of resignation.

“To me, it sounds more like a termination or a forced resignation than a resignation,” said Wilson, who is also a Hopkins County magistrate.

Wilson said he believed Bill Thomas ran afoul of some church leadership before the column was published by supporting an openly gay church member. Wilson said Thomas was told to prevent the member from joining the choir, but Thomas declined to do so.

The church offered Thomas a severance package — contingent on him not making public statements about the details of his departure, Wilson said. According to church policy, staff terminations must be approved by the congregation, and church leaders wanted to avoid that step, Wilson said.

Wilson said he enjoyed reading Angela Thomas’ column.

“There were points in it that I thought were hilarious, it was funny, thought provoking,” he said. “Maybe we are Shiite Baptists.”

A bit of background for those who missed the original post: Both the assistant pastor and his wife declined to be interviewed. Meanwhile, the lead pastor told the AP that the column was not the cause of the assistant pastor’s departure. And the story cited a letter by the assistant pastor saying he had not resigned and had no intention of stepping down.

Confused yet?

My questions drew this response from Mollie, my fellow GetReligionista:

As for whether to take that hearsay at the end and publish it? I’d probably try to and my editors would *never* let me. Or ask me to substantiate it and I’d be unable to. But if the AP thinks it’s cool, that’s interesting.

Reader Brett agreed with Mollie:

I also think the hearsay at the end is out, unless the story makes clear that the “can’t comment” quote from the pastor is in direct response to hearing it or the allegations it contains.

I responded to Brett:

Hearsay means that the person does not have direct knowledge, right?

In that case, perhaps what’s missing is the “How do you know this?” qualifier. Did the pastor tell the member this is what happened? Did church leaders inform the congregation? Did the source overhear this information while walking by a church office?

That information seems crucial to the source’s credibility (and that of the news organization).

Host Todd Wilken and I discuss the “Shiite Baptist” story on this week’s episode of “Crossroads,” the GetReligion podcast.

We also spend a few minutes discussing my recents posts on “Porn: crack cocaine for Christian men?” and “Nolan Ryan’s son and the F-word.”

Click here to listen to the podcast. As always, the Oklahoma accent is free.

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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.

  • MollieZHemingway

    This gives me an opportunity to clarify my quickly dashed off comment. I just meant that the report really needs to explain why a random dude would know the information he’s providing. If it’s first-hand knowledge, that needs to be laid out there. If not, it probably shouldn’t be in it.

    In the course of my interviews for a story, I’ll frequently get information like this — really juicy stuff that instinctively sounds believable — and my editors always ask a dozen questions about it (some of which make me feel foolish for thinking I could include it).

    Basically, their editing has helped me figure out when to include information and when not to — sometimes I’m hedging myself too much and sometimes I’m including hearsay that it’s inappropriate.

    More than anything, though, good editing has helped me learn how to characterize information accurately. Sometimes just explaining the confidence level in something is sufficient.

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

      Thanks for the clarification, Mollie!

      I thought your original comment made a lot of sense, but this additional info certainly helps.


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