The Raw Story reported two days ago that a United Methodist church in Alexandria, Indiana lost 80 percent of its members after its pastor fired a gay choir director because of his sexuality. Over the past two days, other online media have picked up the Raw Story’s account of a large-scale exodus in this conservative, rural church.

This is not a Methodist pastor from Indiana.

This is not a Methodist pastor from Indiana. Photo courtesy of Cody Wheeler via Shutterstock.

The problem: the story’s hook that an unbelievable EIGHTY PERCENT of members left in protest is, well, not believable.

Investigation by other news outlets suggests that reports of a mass exodus are exaggerated. Methodist spokesperson Dan Gangler told the Huffington Post that attendance at the church has not changed. Gangler further said the superintendent of the United Methodist Indiana Conference, who supervises the church’s pastor, is working “to bring reconciliation.”

The Raw Story’s “report” was picked up by other media outlets even though it featured no original reporting. It was a rewrite of a story in the Anderson, Indiana Herald Bulletin.

But what should have tipped people off that there was something amiss was the curious picture chosen by Raw Story to accompany the story. The clergy member in the photo is not the pastor from the Indiana methodist church.┬áIn fact, it’s not even a Methodist. The Jerusalem Cross on his robe and the photo caption: “priest wearing purple robe gives sermon”–Methodists don’t have “priests” and the Jerusalem cross is closely associated with Episcopal and Catholic clergy.

It turns out that the clergy member in the picture is a Catholic priest from Alberta, Canada. That may not have been apparent in the picture, but it would have been clear to Raw Story when it decided to use the stock photo.

Catholic, not Methodist. Alberta, not Indiana. Who cares about details when the image grabs attention?

We all should care. The incident raises important questions about gay rights, religious liberty, and even church governance. Cutting corners may make for a great headline, but we need to get our facts straight first if we’re going to make progress answering these questions.

Categories: Beliefs

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Tobin Grant

Tobin Grant

@TobinGrant blogs for Religion News Service at Corner of Church and State, a data-driven conversation on religion and politics. He is a political science professor at Southern Illinois University and associate editor of the Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion.

2 Comments

  1. Earold Gunter

    Hear,hear!.

    Reminds me of the trash rag I see at the supermarket called “Weekly World News”, which publicizes stories like Elvis coming back to life, then being seen at a local Burger King, although I hardly think they expect anyone to believe such rubbish.

    I mean who in their right mind would believe stories that are so fantastical, so unlikely, and utterly impossible to prove, just because it is written by man, and cleverly marketed to humans?

  2. Aside from the erroneous picture selection (by a media outlet other than the one which originally broke the story!), and the differences of opinion over whether there’s been an exodus from this church, are any of the other substantive parts of the article in question? Was a gay choir director fired solely because he’s gay? And are members of the congregation upset about it?

    Also, while Raw Story may have chosen a bad picture to go with the article, they weren’t the ones who investigated the case and they didn’t break the story. An Indiana paper, the Herald Bulletin, did. (And the picture they chose to include is of the church in question and one of its congregants.) It’s easy to complain about Raw Story’s picture selection, but that choice has nothing to do with the original story and in no way disproves its veracity.

    It’s premature to pronounce the article “false” and the Raw Story & Herald Bulletin as having presented a fraudulent story. If you have evidence the choir director wasn’t fired because he was gay, and that no one in the congregation has balked at his dismissal, then please produce it.

    Condemning the entire story based solely on Raw Story’s choice of picture and on the church’s denials that anyone left over it, just isn’t enough to discredit it. It looks, instead, as though you’ve scraped up tangential or subjective blips which could be used to offer the appearance of a refutation … but really, there isn’t one here. Not yet anyway.

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