Two news stories about the death of a journalist illustrate competing approaches to journalism.
The Baptist Press story about Al Shackleford’s death in a car accident gave two short sentences to the emotional events surrounding his termination 10 years ago by the Southern Baptist Convention’s Executive Committee.
The Associated Baptist Press story on Shackleford’s death gave six paragraphs to his firing and that of Dan Martin, another Baptist journalist.
Following a dispute with one of the SBC’s leading fundamentalists, Shackleford and Martin were fired without cause in an unprecedented, closed-door meeting with armed guards. Shackleford later worked as a clerk at a Kroger store, earning $4.60 an hour.
Associated Baptist Press’ approach showed its commitment to the time-honored standard of “tell the truth and trust the people.” Baptist Press, the SBC’s official news agency, demonstrated its commitment to glossing over information unfavorable to Southern Baptist fundamentalism.
Never a perfect news organ, Baptist Press once strove for balance and accuracy. BP has increasingly speeded away from its historic commitment to fairness and truthfulness, becoming a highly partisan publicity service.
Other stories illustrate BP’s shading of truthfulness and abandonment of fairness.
In April, BP issued a story with the headline “SBC World Hunger Gifts: Second-Highest Total in ’99.”
The SBC official responsible for hunger-concerns bragged, “God is working in marvelous ways to promote Southern Baptists to give selflessly.” He added, “The increased giving reveals that more and more Southern Baptists are gaining a passion for compassion regarding those who are less fortunate and hurting.”
What the story failed to mention was that the highest level of world hunger giving occurred in 1985, fifteen years earlier. The story did not point out that the 1999 level of giving was more than $1 million behind the all-time record.
One wonders about the reason for the omission of relevant facts. Was it an effort to gloss over information that did not reflect positively on current SBC leadership or that would have reflected positively on moderate leadership in the 1980s?
Another BP story alleged that a BP reporter was pushed and cursed at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s 2000 General Assembly. The story provided no supporting evidence for the reporter’s charge. BP ignored the need for an additional witness to verify the reporter’s claim before printing the story.
BP’s plummeting standards raise questions about journalistic integrity. It also forces the question of why non-fundamentalist Baptist state convention papers continue to use BP as a source for news stories.
Robert Parham is BCE’s executive director.