Addressing Justified Concerns

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Written by: 
Published:
May 5, 2020

On Friday, April 24, 2020, Spectrum on its website published the article, “You Will Never Understand Racism Like I Do.” In the days that followed, criticism of the piece exploded both in the comment section and in sectors of social media. Race and religion are serious matters. Anyone who writes about them needs to move carefully. The sensitivity of the subject matter, and the tenor of the criticism Spectrum received in response, prompted a response of this kind.

As will be seen, however, the most appropriate response for Spectrum to give cannot and should not be related to the particular content of the piece nor to the specific issues it raised.[1] From a structural perspective, it is important for Spectrum to address some elements of the publishing of the story that were handled incorrectly, explain why it decided to publish the piece, and explain how it will do a better and clearer job moving forward. On a personal note, what follows is the type of piece that the editor or the board as a whole could write. At the same time, it may not be the best course of action for those parties to attempt that project, as every defense would look self-serving and every criticism like self-flagellation. As many of you know, I have written for this site for almost a decade and recently joined the board of Spectrum’s parent organization, Adventist Forum. I am more familiar than the average reader with Spectrum’s principles and publication processes. It is important to note though that I do not work for, nor am I paid by Spectrum, and I did not play any role in the publication of the piece at issue. I hope that these facts grant some latitude for a thorough examination of what went right and what went wrong in the article going to print.[2]

The problem as I see it is two-fold. First, Spectrum holds an interesting space within Adventist society and culture, not unlike a regular newspaper. It is both a news-gathering and news breaking organization that runs opinion, criticism, and news analysis as well. The first failure of the piece is that, regardless of intent, it operates as both a news report and an opinion piece within the same space. In attempting to accomplish these two goals, it ended up failing at both. To be fair, working on a story like this as a news piece is difficult. The events are public through one particular source, but for obvious reasons no one is talking on the record. Spectrum certainly did its due diligence in attempting to report the story correctly. However, those who criticized the piece for getting at least one crucial fact wrong are correct in their analysis. It seems clear that Spectrum wanted to present this as a news piece. It wanted to report on the story because it had value, and then placed the story in its news section. That being the case, Spectrum had the responsibility to ensure that the piece followed more closely to the standards of reporting — thorough vetting, consistent sourcing, openness about unavoidable gaps in its reporting, and of course, avoiding opinion, bias, or analysis in the report. Now it is true that every newspaper or reporting organization gets facts wrong from time to time. However considering the weight and sensitive nature of this story, more care was warranted in getting the story straight before posting the piece.[3] The fact that Spectrum made mistakes in this regard is not only an internal failure, but also a failure in its responsibility to the author and the audience as well.

The second problem with this piece has nothing to do with the content of the piece, but with Spectrum’s lack of clarity with its audience about its publishing principles. I think it is fairly clear that the vast majority of this audience believes Spectrum to be the journalistic home for those who ascribe to a more progressive form of Adventism.[4] Those people expect that Spectrum will be a reflection of their view of Adventism and the world. Those people are not necessarily wrong. However, Spectrum’s publishing principle is not to only publish pieces that align with the broad beliefs of the organization. Spectrum seriously believes in its mantra, “community through conversation.” In reality what that occasionally will mean is that Spectrum will publish a piece where there may be sharp disagreements about the content (or maybe the quality or usefulness) of the article being considered. Spectrum believes in giving a listening ear, and sometimes a platform, to ideas that could be described as not directly in line with its principles. While the staff (or our audience) may not be swayed by the contrary argument, there is a belief at Spectrum that our community is more complete and better when we attempt to understand and give voice to a myriad of perspectives.

To be fair, while Spectrum believes in community through conversation, it would be erroneous to pretend that Spectrum is unbiased or that it does not have a perspective. That is why, when an article is important enough, or sensitive enough, Spectrum may solicit a response so that other voices with meaningful and important viewpoints get a fair hearing.[5] I believe that considering the subject matter and the circumstances, that should have been done here and it was a mistake that a response was not immediately considered.[6] To be clear — a better, more thorough, and more diverse review may have brought the issues of racial insensitivity to the forefront. However, it does not automatically follow that the discovery of those elements would have led to the piece being pulled. Spectrum may have just as easily decided that the best course of action would be to publish the ideas but have someone write a response.

It is important to reiterate that while the piece at issue is certainly controversial, it is still the type of piece that Spectrum will want to publish — a piece that is challenging in some way that demands we confront and have an open conversation about the issue of race in our school, in our church, and in society. The issue here is that Spectrum did not handle it as well as we could have in this case. Spectrum needs to be more responsible about the context in which a piece like this will be published in the future. And there are plans to do so, both in having more diverse readers looking at pieces that heavily involve race and by having responses to articles when appropriate.

I would hope that there are a few things in the aftermath of this that should go without saying but will be said anyway. Spectrum cares about its audience and the elements within you that bring you here for news, analysis, thought, and commentary. Spectrum has no interest in violating the trust that you give us and part of the reason the piece you are reading now exists is for us to be more clear and direct with you about our principles and values. In addition, Spectrum cares about issues of race both inside and outside of Adventism. Over the years this organization has given several writers (this one included) a platform to sound the call for racial justice in our church, our nation, and our world. We realize that missteps of the kind exhibited here call our belief in that work into question, and the piece you are reading now is a small but necessary step to address justified concerns. Finally, we are grateful and thankful for everyone who shared their criticisms with us in whatever forum. Again, we truly believe that we learn and we grow together as a community when we engage in conversation with each other. We are thankful that you made the effort to take part in that conversation, and Spectrum will be different and better going forward because you did.

 

Notes:

[1] It is possible to do a deep dive on the issues surrounding the piece — the intention of the board and the writer and the conversation they were hoping to spark. The particular places where the author and the board failed to be more cognizant of racial insensitivity. The point of this piece is not to get into the weeds of that debate which has been taking place ably for some time now. The point here is to look at the structural issues that, while most likely not solving the detailed debate, would have allowed a better understanding of the whether and why that led Spectrum to think publishing the piece was a good idea.

[2] I think it is important for me to note here that I am cognizant of the optics of someone like me writing this piece. I want to make it clear that on a personal level I agree with many of the critiques that have been made about this piece, mostly by Black people. I found the piece at best problematic and detrimentally unclear. But this should also be made clear — Spectrum did not ask me to write on this subject. I volunteered to write this piece based on where I personally feel the critique of Spectrum should lie based on the beliefs and values of the organization and its goals.

[3] The fact that has already been changed, in all honesty, was a very simple fact to get right the first time as it was already reported correctly on the Spectrum site. Also, considering his importance to the narrative, the fact and nature of the author’s contact with VP Nixon should be documented in the piece.

[4] I believe this is true even for those regular readers who do not hold those views themselves. Also, as always, I bristle at the use of politically charged terms to describe modes of thought in religious faith, but I am bound by the ease of the terminology.

[5] I was recently personally involved in something like this, where I accepted the challenge of responding to a piece Spectrum published in February of this year.

[6] Despite this, for what I think is a fairly obvious reason, I disagree with Spectrum’s decision to publish Pastor Nixon’s piece that ran on April 29. That obvious reason is not that I disagree with the criticisms he raises.

 

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com. He is a Spectrum columnist and a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.

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