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Baptist Newspaper’s Role Commonly Misunderstood

A Texas Baptist called the other day, upset because a picture of a woman pastor appeared on the front page of the Baptist Standard.

That photograph, he predicted, could cause the church where he is interim pastor to leave the Baptist General Convention of <?xml:namespace prefix = st1 ns = “urn:schemas-microsoft-com:office:smarttags” />Texas and join the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention. He wanted to know why we felt compelled to print such a picture in the paper.

On another day, a letter and a phone call echoed a refrain heard here quite often: The Standard does not equally support “all” Texas Baptists. Pressed for meaning, they said they believe the paper should endorse and affirm the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention to the same degree it advocates on behalf of the BGCT.

These comments reflect common misperceptions addressed by the Baptist Standard’s charter. It mandates that the Standard operate “a printing and/or publishing business to aid and support the Baptist General Convention of Texas and to interpret events and movements that affect the welfare of the people of God.” We operate this paper the way we do because its founders and our forebears mandated we function this way. We also operate this way because it is the right way to run a free and faithful newspaper.

For example, publication of a photograph of a woman preaching is appropriate–no matter what you think of women in the pastorate. In this case, the photograph was taken during the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship annual meeting, held this year in Fort Worth.
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The photograph was newsworthy and important for several reasons: (1) The Fellowship is a national organization of so-called moderate Baptists, which has a following among several hundred churches affiliated with the BGCT. Moreover, many Texas Baptists who do not support the Fellowship have strong opinions about it and are curious about its activities. Plus, the meeting was in Texas this summer. (2) Although very few Texas Baptist churches have called women to be their pastors, the role of women in the pastorate has been a key issue among Baptists for several years and will not be settled soon.
 
So, the Standard’s charter supports publication of such a photograph because it clearly illustrates an event that “affects the welfare of the people of God.”

In addition, editorials on this page from time to time have applauded BGCT actions and criticized some stands taken by leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention and advocates of Southern Baptists of Texas. Again, our charter endorses such a stand. This paper is mandated to “aid and support” the BGCT. That does not mean the paper should not be fair, nor does it mean it should be blindly partisan toward the BGCT.
 
To the contrary, the Standard operates from the strongest position of independence of any Baptist newspaper in this country. Not only does the Standard have its own board of directors, but it also is financially independent far beyond the range of any other Baptist paper. We do not receive any Cooperative Program funds or other financial subsidy from the convention. We operate upon principles of truth and fairness in reporting. Indeed, the Standard’s commitment to presenting all sides of important issues and to treating competing ideas fairly is unprecedented among denominational news organizations.
 
Still, we are grateful to stand with the BGCT and believe that, while not perfect, it is a God-blessed convention uniquely endowed with vision, resources and ministries for expanding God’s kingdom on Earth, even when it is attacked by others who claim the name Baptist.

Unfortunately, many readers seem to hold three common misunderstandings:

They assume the editor makes decisions the way they would make decisions if they were the editor. In most cases, that means they would not publish information about things they don’t like.

Actually, the editor’s personal feelings about newsworthy people, actions and trends have nothing to do with the decision to report them. If they involve “events and movements that affect the welfare of the people of God,” then they should be reported–and not only reported, but set in a context that helps readers understand what they mean for the convention, the churches and Baptist people.

An editor is conditioned to look for how people, actions and trends make an impact upon society–or, in this case, churches and the denomination–and to report on them, even when doing so is unpleasant and downright painful. That is not to say the editors always make the right decisions, but their rationale is justified by professional principles.

They don’t want fairness; they want advocacy. People are conditioned to say they want a “fair” press. Actually, their definitions of fairness usually are skewed toward what best promotes them and their causes. So, a story about how one’s adversary misappropriated funds is “fair,” while a story about how one’s friend plagiarized is “unfair.” Striving for fairness is uncomfortable, especially among Christians. We know we’re all sinners; we all fall short of God’s mark. We’d like for everything that can ever be said about us to be glowing, but it won’t.

They don’t understand the difference between news stories, letters and editorials. News stories report the events. The writer attempts to omit personal opinion and report facts as well as the perspectives of the individuals involved in the story. A letter is the opinion of the letter-writer alone. Letters are chosen to represent a cross-section of opinion received by the editor. They run the gamut of ideas held by the readers, and they balance themselves as readers respond to the issues and to one another. The editorial is the opinion of the editor. It is based on fact but also seeks to interpret through ideas shaped by interaction with those facts. Ground rules of fairness and forthrightness apply, but it is one person’s opinion.

Newspaper publishing is a raucous undertaking, even under the most peaceful of times. It’s not always pleasant. But it is a holy calling, for dissemination of ideas is vital for Baptists’ democracy.
 
Marv Knox is editor of the Baptist Standard. This column was reprinted with permission.