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.
"Many of us, in our personal lives, put our children in the care of other adults from time to time. It's relevant to a lot of parents because it's one of [those] stories that make you stop and say, 'Who in my life am I putting my children in the care of, and have I been careful about that?' "
News drivers aren't unique to news; they show up in gossip as well. But journalists are obliged to "seek truth and report it," according to the Code of Ethics from the Society of Professional Journalists. That's why information in a news story must be checked and the sources should be named, especially when the allegations are as explosive as those in the Long imbroglio. A news story may quote, for example, from court filings, or include interviews with the sources themselves. When the sources are unnamed, the publication should explain why. Independent experts might comment on the facts and on related issues.
Most of this is happening in the Long scandal. Some sites may withhold the accusers' names because their policy is not to identify alleged victims of sexual assault. Other outlets, however, are linking to court filings or quoting from them, and others, like The Root, are publishing the names.
Nowadays, newsworthiness seems to rise and fall within hours. But interest in the Long saga has not waned, even though it's been two weeks since the allegations surfaced. Eric Deggans, the television and media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, expects the story to linger because the controversy has so many levels. The scandal has held a mirror to the African-American church and its view of homosexuality, as well as to the opulent lifestyle of some prominent spiritual leaders.
Deggans says that he's seeing these types of issues being probed even as the basic allegations are being investigated. "I think responsible journalists are coming to this and saying, 'What happened? What are the allegations, and how can these people prove it?' " he says.
"As more people cover it, as more things become known … we'll find somebody who wants to talk about gay people in the black church. … We'll have somebody else who will [ask], 'What does this mean about powerful people and their affairs?' We'll have people who will break off pieces of the story and take a deeper look at them."
Such examinations make the scandal more than a list of tawdry accusations. The coverage pushes readers and viewers to look at their own closely held beliefs about morality, the role of leaders, even issues of faith.
And that final introspection is why the controversy is news: Gossip makes us look at others; news makes us probe ourselves.
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is a regular contributor to The Root.