If at first you don’t succeed … find another source

If at first you don’t succeed … find another source February 27, 2014

Tis a lesson you should heed:

Try, try again.

If at first you don’t succeed,

Try, try again.

British writer and editor W.E. Hickson popularized this quotation in the 1870s, and I’m dusting it off today for our friends at The Dallas Morning News. Why, you ask? I’m guessing they haven’t thought of applying the concept to sourcing stories, particularly ones that demand a balanced treatment.

On the heels of a federal judge’s ruling striking down Texas’ ban on same-sex marriage, I looked to the Lone Star State’s outstanding collection of newspapers for what I expected to be top-notch coverage. Instead, I came across this news/feature piece, which fell flat on its one-sided backside.

After 53 years, Jack Evans will finally get hitched to his life partner George Harris on Saturday, believed to be the first public same-sex wedding in Dallas officiated by a United Methodist minister.

The union has qualified religious acceptance. There’s open debate in the United Methodist Church, which officially views homosexuality as “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

But the well-known minister celebrating the wedding — the 85-year-old Rev. Bill McElvaney — says “love over law” matters most.

“The Methodist church is on the wrong side of the Gospel on this — and history,” McElvaney said.

In the next paragraph, we expect a quote from someone speaking on behalf of the United Methodist Church. The rules of good journalism would suggest this person be allowed to speak to the denomination’s stance on same-sex marriage, perhaps offer a comment on the news peg of the Texas ruling and what it might mean for the people in Texas pews.

Here’s what we have instead, buried deep in the heart of Texas — er, this story:

The UMC bishop for this region, Bishop Michael McKee, didn’t return messages seeking comment.

I read the story three times specifically looking for someone else to represent the United Methodist Church … or the “other side” … or anyone not dabbing his eyes or clutching her heart in harmonious affirmation for Evans and Harris and their upcoming nuptials. Or even someone mildly opposed. Indifferent even? There’s no one. Well, there is the Neiman Marcus spokeswoman who was given a chance to comment on Evans’ being given the “opportunity to resign” after management found out he was gay, and she offered a generic response to the age of records and the company’s position on valuing diversity.

On my fourth read, this struck me: Perhaps the staff hoped the Kleenex factor would compensate for their lack of balance? The story is long on other sources and details. During the five-plus decades they’ve been together, we learn about jobs they’ve lost, friends who have died of AIDS and other battles fought. We’re also told the minister who is keen to marry them has liver cancer. And Harris was dishonorably discharged from the Army, with a reversal to honorably discharged when the American Red Cross intervened years later.

On my fifth read (yes, I probably have read this story more than anyone actually paid to care) I decided this: I think they wanted the story exactly this way, with this slant and tilt and lack of balance. It is a tale of valor and bravery and destiny overcoming all odds. “A love story” that is “making a statement” as two other, unrelated and unessential sources were allowed to say.

So there it is, in all its glory. Why do you think it ran as it did?

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3 responses to “If at first you don’t succeed … find another source”

  1. It would probably be best to write such stories without having the writer express emotions on either side. Some blogs would run such a story with an implication that the men are horrible sinners, with the emotions on the side of the opponents. An objective account would indicate why the men want to get married and why the church’s law forbids it, with no implications from the writer that such a union is either wonderful or terrible.

  2. Clearly because there is only one United Methodist leader in the state of Texas — or in the USA — and he did not respond.

    • Either that or for whatever reason the reporter was “unable” to visit an actual Methodist church to see if anybody was about.

      (…kinda like how the area daily can’t be bothered to actually hire a movie review and so gets their movie reviews from a wire service despite being just up the highway from a movieplex. In contrast, every single Friday sees me slink on over to the local cinema to review my choice of new releases, rain or shine.)

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