September 17, 2003

Watch out for Presbyterians. Keep a special eye out for Presbyterian ministers, especially former ones. And if the topic involves abortion, exercise more caution. In fact, minister rhymes with sinister. Could there be a connection between minister and sinister?

Those thoughts came to mind as I read the recent coverage of the execution of Paul Hill. The state of Florida sentenced Hill to death for murdering an abortion clinic doctor and his guard in Pensacola in 1994.

Almost all the stories I read about Hill usually made the following point: He was a former Presbyterian minister. 

One reporter offered a bit more information on the Presbyterian label later in the same story. She noted that Hill “moved to West Palm Beach to practice his faith in an Orthodox Presbyterian church.”
I appreciated that additional nugget of information.

All the stories I read via The New York Times, Washington Post, St. Petersburg Times, the Associated Press, and The Los Angeles Times sought to give me background on Hill. Some offered more than others. But none of them explained, at least to my satisfaction, why they felt it important to note why they used the term Presbyterian as a description.

As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain.

So when I see the word “Presbyterian,” I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as “Catholic,” “Episcopalian,” “Christian,” “Hindu,” “Jew,” “Mormon,” “Hindu,” “Buddhist,” “Muslim,” or “Pagan.”

Here are some of the questions that popped into my mind when I saw the term “Presbyterian” in the Hill stories:

• Why was Hill referred to as a Presbyterian and as a minister?
• What did the reporter mean by Presbyterian?
• What is a Presbyterian? What kinds of Presbyterians are there?
• What did being Presbyterian have to do with the murder he committed?
• What did being a minister have to do with the murder he committed?
• What was the difference between a Presbyterian and an Orthodox Presbyterian?
• What role, if any, did the Presbyterian denomination play in what Hill did?

Some stories tried to help readers understand what Hill believed, how it contributed to his motive for committing murder, and why he believed God would reward him. In this way, some reports addressed elements of his faith. But the stories offered me no understanding of what being a Presbyterian specifically had to do with what he did. Or even what a Presbyterian is.

So what is a Presbyterian?

A quick Google search on Paul Hill brought me to the Army of God website, which noted that Hill had served as a Presbyterian minister in the “Presbyterian Church of America (P.C.A.) and the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.).” Further searches led me to websites of the Presbyterian Church in America, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church website, and the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

These Presbyterian websites provided information about each denomination’s theology, history, and religious outlook. They also might provide more specificity regarding what type of Presbyterian Hill was and, possibly, what influence, if any, it had on why Hill did what he did.

Religion appears as news more often, these days. Not only has news about Muslims become more common, the past few months featured stories on the Ten Commandments controversy in Alabama involving terms such as “conservative Christians,” “Christian demonstrators,” and the most recent settlements involving the Catholic Church regarding sexual abuse cases.

When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects, or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe.

We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.

The Hill coverage reminded me that instead of prompting people to wonder about preying Presbyterians, we should provide a more accurate, more complete, perspective on Presbyterians. And any other group.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
Aly Colón

More News

CNN suspends Chris Cuomo

Will Cuomo be fired? CNN will determine that in the coming days. But CNN couldn’t just let him stay on the air while it sorted through the details.

November 30, 2021
Back to News