June 23, 1999

Secular reporters struggle
to explain Baptists to world

___By Tim Palmer &
___Brittany Jarvis

___Missouri Word & Way/Florida Baptist Witness
___ATLANTA--If you're a reporter for a daily newspaper, wading through the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention and then conveying that experience to non-Baptist readers in a clear manner can be a challenge of biblical proportions.
___Every year, secular papers from around America send reporters to the SBC annual
REPORTERS from around the nation gather in the SBC newsroom for a news conference with Southern Baptist Convention President Paige Patterson. (BP photo by Bill Bangham)
meeting. Some of these reporters are novices who have no background information about Southern Baptists, while others are veteran religion writers who are more knowledgeable about Baptist protocol and beliefs.
___"It's a challenge to convey accurately to the readership" where Southern Baptists are coming from, said Cary McMullan, religion writer for New York Times-owned newspapers.
___McMullen has covered the SBC for three years. He attended divinity school and was a Presbyterian pastor. He also grew up as a Southern Baptist, so he understands the SBC better than most.
___But covering the convention is still a challenge, he said, noting it is difficult to keep up with everything and everyone.
___Reporters may spend hours tracking down one person for one quote, said Patricia Rice, religion reporter for the St. Louis (Mo.) Post-Dispatch.
___"People don't always know what is going on," she explained. "They are more informed about their pet issues and committees."
___And then to make the quotes and convention actions understandable to her secular audience, Rice said, she must explain basic things about Baptists in her stories.
___Southern Baptists' commitment to their faith and moral convictions is admirable, said Bill Singleton, religion reporter for the Birmingham (Ala.) Post-Herald. But that commitment is sometimes misunderstood by the public, he added.
___For example, Baptist actions such as committing to evangelize the Jews, condemning homosexuality, affirming of a wife's submitting to her husband can be shocking to the culture at large, he noted. So in his reporting, Singleton tries to give a historical perspective to actions taken.
___Singleton has covered nearly all the SBC annual meetings in this decade. He had an unpleasant experience at the 1995 SBC annual meeting, when messengers passed a resolution apologizing for past support of slavery. A messenger he was interviewing made a derogatory reference to Singleton's race, which is African-American.
___Yet Singleton, who is a Christian, emphasized he would not characterize all Southern Baptists by the incident.
___"There are a lot of friendly people here," he said. "They're willing to talk to you."
___Unfortunately for the SBC, it is easy for the media to make caricatures of Southern Baptists, McMullen acknowledged.
___While every public figure risks negative press coverage, many Baptists, including some leaders, instigate the negative media focus themselves, he suggested.
___"Anytime you have a group this large, you'll have some that draw attention to themselves, their pet causes or just generally be outrageous," McMullen said. "Some Southern Baptist leaders make deliberate efforts to make statements that will attract attention, and they do so in a flamboyant way."
___The hardest part of covering the convention in recent years has been remaining on good terms with feuding sides of a conflict, said Jim Jones, religion editor for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Jones, who has reported on the SBC since 1960, calls the conflict between Southern Baptist conservatives and moderates the convention's "holy wars."
___"I would like to have seen the two groups work together," Jones said. "The two sides had strengths that complimented each other."
___From his vantage point, Southern Baptists appear to be "very committed evangelical Christians," Jones said. "There's not a lot of difference in beliefs between the different groups of Southern Baptists, except they don't like each other."

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