Is the Bishop Eddie Long Story News?

The unfolding of sexual-coercion charges against the pastor has certainly been mesmerizing. But is this saga news or just scandalous?

Posted:
 
104465399
Billboard for Bishop Eddie Long's church in Lithonia, Ga. (Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)

Bishop Eddie Long has long enjoyed celebrity. He leads a flock of 25,000 members at New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, near Atlanta, and is a noted televangelist. He is also an outspoken critic of same-sex marriage.

Now, however, he is enduring notoriety. Four young men have sued him (pdf). They claim that Long used money, cars and trips to seduce them into sexual encounters. Long addressed the charges before his congregation -- although he didn't directly deny them -- and vowed to fight them. Two accusers, Jamal Parris and Spencer LeGrande, stood before television cameras and maintained their own truthfulness.

The details are juicy and scandalous. But is the story gossip or news, and what distinguishes the two?

Absolutely news, says Dean Miller, former editor of the Post Register in Idaho Falls, Idaho. In 2005 the newspaper was both applauded and condemned for stories that examined pedophilia among local Boy Scout leaders.

"It's news because of the prominence of the bishop. He's in charge of a large congregation that spans continents. It's a big, successful church. Just that fact -- that he is a prominent, successful person in that community -- makes [the story] news," says Miller, who is now director of Stony Brook University's Center for News Literacy, which is dedicated to helping readers become critical consumers of news.

But Long's prominence isn't the only reason he and his accusers stand in the eye of a media storm. The scandal fulfills several news drivers, or the journalistic criteria that determine whether a situation demands coverage, including timeliness, relevance to the public, impact, prominence, and geographic and emotional proximity.

Another driver is conflict, and there's plenty of it in the he-said-they-said duel between Long and his accusers. And then there's the contradiction between Long's outspoken opposition to same-sex marriage and the allegations about his private actions.

There's also a measure of uniqueness. Even though Long is nowhere near the first spiritual leader accused of sexual impropriety or, specifically, of anti-gay hypocrisy -- see evangelical Ted Haggard, with whom a male prostitute claimed to have had a relationship, for one -- the idea of a religious leader engaged in tawdry behavior is still exceptional enough to raise eyebrows.

"There's still an unusualness in the idea that a person of the cloth would abuse their position in this particular way," Miller says.

The immediate audience for the story would seem to be people of faith: Long's parishioners and folks who watch his broadcast, which goes to 172 countries. But even folks who know nothing about Long might also be interested in the story, Miller says.