A megachurch pastor in Fontana, California, died Monday of COVID-19. The Los Angeles Times then wrote about the tragedy in a woefully misleading way.
Bob Bryant, 58, associate pastor for the Water of Life Community Church, tested positive for the coronavirus in November. He subsequently developed pneumonia, suffered a heart attack, and then died, one of the nearly 20,000 deaths California has seen connected to the virus.
According to the Times, Bryant became infected while on vacation and did not return to the church. That information is in the story, four paragraphs down. Nothing in the article—or in a Facebook post from his wife Lori, who was also infected—suggests that Bryant's infection was transmitted to or from members of the church or that Bryant put anybody at the church at risk.
Nevertheless, the L.A. Times headlined the story "Pastor dies of COVID-19 weeks after Fontana megachurch reopened for indoor services." The lede paragraph also emphasizes the church's reopening, and the story also notes that Water of Life was among the many California churches resisting orders that they close their doors:
Following California's original stay-at-home order imposed in March, the state allowed houses of worship to reopen in late May with limited indoor capacity. But after a surge in cases in the late spring and early summer, state officials closed indoor operations of churches in mid-July in the hardest-hit counties. Water of Life Community Church defied that order, however, and reopened five weeks ago.
DePaola said county officials knew the church was holding services indoors. "The county is aware we are meeting inside," she said. "We're not trying to break rules. They know what we're doing."
The story does mention that the church's defiance comes with the same careful guidelines—social distancing, masks indoors—that have followed every secular indoor activity. The church also held outdoor services for those who were not comfortable indoors.
Nevertheless, the Times seems intent on giving readers the impression that the church is behaving in risky ways. It starts with that headline, and it ends with a note that the church will hold both indoor and outdoor services for Bryant even though only outdoor funerals are permitted.
Contact tracing could ultimately reveal a relationship between the church and Bryant's infection, but as of now we have no reason to believe there is one. Without evidence of such a link, it is journalistically irresponsible to try to connect the man's death to the church's actions.