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September 29, 1999





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Tragedy propels witness onto airwaves
___By Dan Martin
___Texas Baptist Communications
___FORT WORTH--The virtually non-stop news coverage of the shooting at Wedgwood Baptist Church seemed to produce an unlikely result--the most straightforward, unfiltered presentation of the Christian gospel in the secular media some observers can recall.
___From Pastor Al Meredith's appearance on "Larry King Live" to the testimonies of young survivors interviewed at the scene of the shooting, words seldom heard on network TV broadcasts became commonplace.
___Americans saw Meredith standing before 15,000 people at a communitywide
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OUTSIDE SOUTHWESTERN SEMINARY, photographers shoot video of a wedding photograph of Shawn Brown.
memorial service proclaiming, "There is only one genuine source of hope ... Jesus Christ."
___On CNN, a preacher outlined the gospel plan of salvation, and the cameras rolled without interruption.
___In live interviews, weeping teenagers proclaimed, "Jesus is Lord." Some talked about the love of God. Others said God is in control, despite the horrible carnage in the church sanctuary.
___Christians shared their faith unashamedly as reporters stuck microphones in their faces. Reporters took down every word of testimony from grieving teenagers without cynicism or censure.
___As part of one local station's on-the-scene coverage, a news anchor--himself a former youth minister--explained the faith of Baptist Christians in detail, with tenderness and respect.
___Suddenly, it was newsworthy to know what Baptists believe and why they were gathered on Wednesday night for worship.
___"In the middle of the terrible tragedy, it showed once again that God is in charge," said Scott Sams, co-anchor on WFAA-Channel 8 in Dallas, an ABC affiliate. "It was so amazing. God put his hand on us in the midst of this terrible thing.
___It was like he said, 'Lets make the best of this. Let's witness to all of these people right now.'
___Sams, a former youth minister whose wife, Lisa, is a graduate of Southwestern Seminary and currently minister to women at Parkway Hills Baptist Church in Plano, said he was able to bring two pastors onto the air where they "witnessed uninterrupted."
___"Nobody came on in my ear to tell me to cut them off," he said. "It allowed me to go ahead and serve up an (unedited) witnessing opportunity. God was a big part of that. He
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KEN HEMPHILL, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary president, speaks to reporters after the funeral of seminary alumna Sydney Browning Sept. 18. With him are Don Browning, her father; Shannon Carter, her sister; Al Meredith, pastor of Wedgwood Baptist Church; and Mayor Kenneth Barr of Fort Worth.
put his hand on us and on this television station."
___The fact the tragedy occurred in a church seemed to open up many media outlets' coverage to unfettered expressions of Christian faith and hope. While the other episodes of random violence had been covered continuously by the media, only the Wedgwood tragedy seemed to emphasize Christian faith so clearly.
___"The Wedgwood tragedy afforded Christians an opportunity to express their unfiltered faith through the media," said Robert Parham, director of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville, Tenn., adding that too often the mainstream media covers religion only at the extreme ends.
___"Wedgwood also afforded Christian ministers a moment to serve as society's chaplains, extending words of comfort. Witness and comfort are two important duties of the Christian community," he said.
___An informal, unscientific survey of the coverage of the tragedy indicates that broadcast and print outlets generally presented Christian testimony and witness without censure or ridicule.
___"Many times the media is put down as Godless, as non-Christian, as people who don't believe. But that is simply not true," said Sara Stone, professor of journalism law and ethics at Baylor University in Waco.
___Meredith said he found many believers among the cadre of news people from around the world who converged on Fort Worth.
___"A lot of them interviewed me with tears in their own eyes over what had happened," he said. "Don't blame the media for this."
___Yet not all was rosy, said Peggy Wehmeyer, religion correspondent for ABC News. While agreeing the faith perspective of participants in the Wedgwood tragedy was a vital part of the story, she said "any good reporter" should allow the people involved to share their beliefs freely.
___But not every reporter did, Wehmeyer said, pointing specifically to one youth who was interviewed by a major metropolitan daily newspaper. The young person recalled talking directly to the gunman, telling him he needed to accept Jesus. The reporter changed the quote to "You need religion."
___"Can you imagine a young evangelical Christian saying that? Of course not," she said, adding that it was inexcusable to change a direct quote. "But the 'Jesus' word just offends some people."
___Wehmeyer, who was working on a story about Wedgwood for the 20/20 television news magazine, said the national media overall did a "lousy" job covering the event. In terms both of the minimal staff resources the networks committed to the story and the lack of follow-up, she maintained the coverage paled in comparison to the shooting at Columbine High School.
___Yet others still saw positive results coming simply from the fact the tragedy opened the door to exposing the everyday faith of Baptists.
___When the media decided to do continuous coverage of the Wedgwood event, it was both being shaped by and shaping the community, said Bill Tillman, a former professor of Christian ethics who now works for the Baptist General Convention of Texas.
___"With the continuous broadcasts, they did not create the climate of religious perspective; that is what they found," he said. "Many of the kids were still horrified by how close they had come to dying, but they put a theological perspective on everything.
___"In a crisis, our theology shows up. What you value most and what you hold dear shows up in the midst of a crisis," he said.
___Baylor's Stone was in San Diego when the shooting spree occurred at the Jewish Day Care Center earlier this summer.
___"In that incident, people of religious faith were target for attack, but the same faith response did not emerge," she said. "Of course, there wasn't the saturation coverage we had (of Wedgwood) and there was not as much opportunity for the response of religious leaders."?
___The response in Fort Worth may have been conditioned by the fact it was evangelical Baptists who were most directly involved.
___"I do not know if there would have been the same intensity of response had it been in a Methodist, Episcopal or even a Presbyterian church," Stone said, adding that for her "it is natural that a lot of the coverage should be about faith and about Christianity."
___"That was the context, the setting. The young people were at a rally about See You at the Pole, and that rally is about sharing faith, about telling people about Jesus."
___"On the assumption that Satan, enlisting the help of Larry Gene Ashbrook, set out last week to intimidate Christians ...well, did this unholy pair pick the wrong church!" observed Dallas Morning News commentator William Murchinson in a Sept. 22 op-ed piece. "Liberal Protestants of hazy theological outlook--that might have been one thing. But Southern Baptists! No one in his right mind would put forward the Baptists as subject matter for spiritual intimidation."
___The end result, Murchison predicted, will be "bad news for Satan. He's stirred up the Baptists--folk who take him with the deep seriousness his malice deserves. The culture wars may have taken a decisive turn."
___Ken Camp and Mark Wingfield contributed to this story
___

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