Tampa Bay tear jerker: A ‘former’ Baptist pastor?

The following is a picky little post about a story that kind of got under my skin today. It’s a human-interest story that, on one level, is about sports.

But it’s not really a sports story. Please keep reading.

No, it’s a tear-jerker piece from The Tampa Bay Times about a dying man who is clearly a serious baseball fan and, to some degree, he is a serious Christian believer. Maybe. You can’t really tell.

This story is one or two words away from being a normal, clearly written news report. For the life of me, I can’t figure out why the Times team elected — in a crucial sentence of the story — to be so vague. Maybe it was just a mistake. Maybe someone just did take the story very seriously.

Here is the top of the story. Can you spot the vague word that got to me?

Harry Cummings sat in his wheelchair by the dugout and took it all in.

“Is that home plate?” asked the 80-year-old Spring Hill man who doctors say has only weeks left to live. “It doesn’t look that far from here to hit a home run.”

Cummings is dying from kidney cancer. The former Baptist preacher says he is ready to go when God is ready to take him. But Sunday he had some living to do, thanks to grandson Jeremy Via and the Tampa Bay Rays, who arranged for a pregame tour and meet-and-greet with players.

Yes, I am the son of a Southern Baptist pastor. My dad was a Baptist preacher until the moment he died.

What, precisely, is a “former” Baptist preacher?

I have known some ex-Baptist preachers. They were former Baptist preachers. The implication is that they either left the ministry, left the faith, joined another faith or some combination of the above.

Of course, I have known many, many retired Baptist preachers. They are still Baptist preachers, even if they have left full-time work in a church.

The point is that they are not “former” Baptist preachers.

So what is Cummings? Is he an ex-Baptist preacher or a retired Baptist preacher?

The story never tell us. The copy desk used the one word that really doesn’t work. Why?

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In a twist, vague evangelicals all oppose immigration reform

Stop me if I sound like a broken record.

Once or twice or maybe even three times, I’ve complained about major media reporting that the nation’s evangelicals — all acting in lockstep — have jumped on an immigration reform bandwagon.

My concern about these stories has been purely journalistic: a lack of adequate reporting and sourcing to back up broad generalizations about a vaguely defined group of Christians.

For a twist, how about we consider a story from the Deseret News, a Salt Lake City daily newspaper owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints?

In GetReligion-esque fashion, the Deseret News takes issue with media coverage of evangelicals and immigration. Let’s start at the top:

It’s been in the headlines for months.

“Evangelicals push Congress for immigration changes.”

“Among U.S. evangelicals, surprising support for immigration reform.”

“Obama’s immigration plan encourages evangelicals.”

Outlets including The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, Reuters and numerous others have written more or less the same story on the subject.

The problem is that it’s not exactly true. Evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform, which is commonly taken to mean a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants and, simultaneously, measures for improved enforcement of immigration law.

Since our focus is journalism, anyone see a problem with that lede?

My first problem is a personal one. In other words, I’ll leave open the possibility that my opinion could be wrong. But if I were the editor, I’d suggest the reporter focus less on other media and more on reporting the actual facts. Do some digging, and write a news story on what’s happening with evangelicals and immigration. Save the media weeping and gnashing of teeth for GetReligion.

My second problem is the same one I’ve had with previous reports by CNN, the Tampa Bay Times and The Dallas Morning News: Blanket statements about evangelicals with no named attribution. Who says evangelicals are not largely behind comprehensive immigration reform? How do you know this? These are basic, Journalism 101 kinds of questions.

The story continues:

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Definition, please: Who are these evangelicals?

The Tampa Bay Times broke big news on its front page the other day.

According to the Florida newspaper, there are 100 million evangelicals in the United States. Amazingly, all of them have decided to support immigration reform.

Who knew evangelicals were so like-minded and all willing to follow the same unnamed leaders? But I digress. Again.

Let’s start at the top of the story, which also ran in the Miami Herald:

WASHINGTON — I was a stranger and you invited me in.

Evangelicals nationwide are turning their Bibles to Matthew 25:35 and praying that Congress is listening to those words — part of a highly-coordinated effort to spur progress on the long unresolved and contentious issue of immigration.

Faith leaders and their congregations have become an unlikely but powerful ally to reform advocates, framing the question over what to do with 11 million unauthorized residents as one of moral compassion, and tapping into influence among Republicans to soften opposition to a pathway to citizenship.

“Immigration is an issue that speaks to coming to the aid of the most vulnerable,” said the Rev. Joel Hunter, head of the megachurch Northland near Orlando. “We want to develop in our people a heart for those who are disadvantaged and give them a fair shake.”

After the vague references up high to “evangelicals,” “faith leaders” and “congregations,” give the Tampa Bay Times a little credit for quoting a named source — finally — in the fourth paragraph, although some might quibble and suggest Jesus is the “head” of the church and Hunter only the “senior pastor.”

Sarcasm aside, this story has two major problems:

• First, the broad generalizations that it attaches to a vast, vague group of Americans that it characterizes as “evangelicals.”

As the reader who submitted the story link to GetReligion put it:

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