In November of 1864, the pastor of the Mt. Moriah United Methodist Church in Gower, Missouri, was on his way to prepare his family to move closer to his new assignment.
The pastor, Edwin Robinson, was a Union sympathizer in a slaveholding state (Missouri). The state was under constant pressure and surveillance by Union forces. He was stopped by a Union battalion and asked to identify himself. Robinson responded, “I am a Southern Methodist pastor” (Methodists were divided into Northern and Southern groups until the 1960s). The captain turned to his battalion and ordered, “Blow his brains out!” The Rev. Robinson was shot dead on the road.
Just over a half century later, in 1919, Wesley Robertson was the editor of this newspaper. After printing stories that upset a rival newspaper in the area, he was shot to death for his views by a group associated with a rival paper. It was during a time of great political tension in America.
Both of these men were performing jobs explicitly protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution: freedom of religion and freedom of the press.
In my career journey so far, I have been employed by these two “protected” professions. In fact, I am now employed by both of the entities in the above stories. I currently serve as pastor of the Mt. Moriah United Methodist Church in Gower, and my full-time position is at News-Press NOW in St. Joseph.
Both from the pulpit and through the media, I can take comfort in protected speech. Both roles, however, come with a strong sense of responsibility. Journalists say to people (in the words of the late Walter Cronkite), “That’s the way it is!” Preachers say something along the lines of, “This is what the Lord says.” These statements carry weight, and they rely upon the honesty and integrity of the messenger. Of course, being human, those of us who benefit from First Amendment protections sometimes get it wrong. That means the great freedom we are given should be tempered with a sense of responsibility and humility. It also means we need accountability.
The lessons I learned about preparing a sermon over the last 27 years also apply to the work of journalism, which has employed me in one way or another for the past four years. I think these lessons benefit both the givers and the receivers of the message.
Examine the source: Is there an attempt to provide information from more than one side of an issue? Are our sources reliable?
Examine the method: How is data being collected? Does the approach to news (or the message) start with an opinion and then an attempt to defend it, or is there an openness to a deeper exploration that may end up challenging or changing the opinion of the reporter/messenger?
Examine the consistency: Over time, is there an attempt to be holistic in delivering the message — balancing both the representation and the presentation?
Freedom of religion and of the press may be guaranteed in the Constitution, but they do not come cheaply. Sometimes exercising these freedoms comes with a great price. They are honorable and important professions, but they both require commitment to the truth from both the messengers and the recipients of the message. Integrity and accountability can move us toward a rare and precious commodity: The truth!