Five questions to ask before passing along information
Last month, Shirley Sherrod was asked to resign her USDA position after being accused of racism.
The controversy erupted on Monday, July 19, when conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart posted a heavily-edited video of a Sherrod speech. In the video, Sherrod related a 1986 incident in which she said that she didn’t help a white farmer in South Georgia as much as she could have. She told an NAACP gathering in Coffee County that she “didn’t give the full force of what I could do” as he came to her for assistance.
Senior officials in the Agriculture Department picked up on the video and alerted USDA secretary Tom Vilsack, who initially placed Sherrod on administrative leave.
Sherrod said her remarks were taken out of context. “My point in telling the story is that working with him helped me see that it wasn’t a black and white issue.”
She told of how she overcame her own issues of race to help poor farmers, including this family with whom she became friends and worked with for two years to help avoid foreclosure. In fact, the farmer’s wife stepped forward to defend Sherrod.
That didn’t stop the NAACP from condemning her remarks, nor news outlets like Fox News from calling for her resignation because of her apparent discrimination.
But, according to the Associated Press, the White House began to wonder if the remarks were taken out of context and if the USDA should see the entire video before calling for Sherrod’s resignation. Yet no one from the White House wanted to meddle in what was considered a USDA personnel matter.
By Monday evening, USDA Deputy Undersecretary Cheryl Cook called and asked Sherrod if she was willing to resign and if she’d send her written resignation by day’s end. Sherrod agreed, while Vilsack made a statement in which he said his department had “zero tolerance for discrimination.”
On Tuesday morning, Sherrod began appearing on cable news shows asserting that the video didn’t give the whole story of her speech. In Washington, government officials were scrambling to find a full transcript. By Tuesday evening, the NAACP posted a full video of her speech, in which she shares about working through her personal hang-ups and working towards racial reconciliation.
By Wednesday, officials, including Vilsack, and news commentators admitted they moved too hastily and spent the rest of the week apologizing to Sherrod. Vilsack even offered her a promotion to return to USDA.
The USDA jumped the gun, and so did the NAACP. Yet the frustrating thing for me as I watched this story unfold was the shoddy journalism. Where was the confirmation before the story aired? Professional journalists at places like Fox News should know better. Verify the facts. Check the context. Confirm. That’s journalism 101.
There’s a lesson here for all of us. Since, “the tongue has the power of life and death” (Proverbs 18:21a), ask these five questions before sharing info:
First, is it true? Every church has a grapevine, and often, the info on the grapevine is not completely accurate. Don’t pass something along if you don’t have the full facts. Sometimes that happens with prayer requests. What started as an aching toe becomes full-blown open heart surgery by the time it’s made the rounds.
Second, is the info confidential? Can you be trusted to keep confidences?
Third, is it necessary to share this info? For some, knowledge is power, and some people can’t wait to share what they know. But do we have to share everything we know? Is it gossip?
Fourth, is it edifying? Does sharing this info build up the person or hurt the person? Does sharing this info help the fellowship or hurt the fellowship?
Fifth, is it timely? Sometimes info is shared prematurely. When a group is in the process of making a decision or shaping a recommendation, members need to have the freedom to finish their work before info is passed along prematurely. When they’re ready to report, then they will report.
Dr. David L. Chancey is pastor, McDonough Road Baptist Church, Fayetteville. The church family gathers at 352 McDonough Road, just past the soccer fields and drivers’ license offices. Join them for Bible study this Sunday at 9:45 a.m. and worship at 10:55 a.m. Visit them on the web at www.mcdonoughroad.org.