Pensacola News Journal
The Money and the Myths
Pensacola News Journal staff
left to right: Alice Crann, reporter, Ron Stallcup, graphics editior, Amie K. Streater, reporter, Gary Hairlson, photo editor, J. Lowe Davis, project editor, Michael Spooneybarger, photographer, Kimberly Blair, reporter, John W. Allman reporter, and Joseph Brown III, photographer
A spontaneous outpouring of Christian spirit turned a one-night revival into a 2-year phenomenon. Fervent worshippers fell limp in the aisles and spoke in tongues. The evangelist himself had been saved from heroin addiction and crime after being born again.
These were some of the stories that came out of the Brownsville Revival, the subject of more than 40 stories in the Pensacola News Journal. Executive editor Teresa Wasson said many revival supporters believe the events at Brownsville mark the beginning of the worldwide revival that will precede the second coming of Christ. "Impressed by their conviction and certain this was an important story to tell, we began a deeper examination of the revival expecting to find evidence to support what the believers were saying," Wasson said. "And we found many passionate, genuine stories of personal redemption."
Wasson said reporting also led to the other side where they found troubling claims about the money and methodology of the Brownsville Revival. "The critics urged us to do what the other news media had not: Take a harder look at the revival," Wasson said. "As we investigated their claims, we found considerable basis for what they were saying."
Wasson said this series was distinguished by the reporters asking questions about the validity of claims of the revival and not about the peculiarity of beliefs. As a result, Wasson said, the newspaper found the birth of the revival was not spontaneous but had been planned for months; the thousands of dollars collected during services were resulting in lavish lifestyles for the ministers rather than help for the needy; the evangelist had exaggerated his stories of drugs and crime, and more than $60,000 in sales tax was owed to Florida on revival merchandise.
Wasson said the most challenging part of producing this report was dealing with the religious charities because they are not required to open their books for public access.
The news staff also learned a few journalism lessons from the series. "We have been reminded by this experience that local stories are best covered by the local newspaper," Wasson said. "We also have learned that while there are many fine feature stories about religion, there are many hard news stories that need telling as well. Newspapers need to pay attention to both."
Judges said they appreciated that writers and editor avoided "religious bashing" by not demeaning the faith of anyone involved. "All in all, the series is an example of the best in public service journalism. We can only assume that at some point, a reporter or editor looked at the Brownsville Revival and said, 'Let there be light.' And so it came to pass."