Churches and the News Media: Telling Our Story
Presented to the Executive Board of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA, November 12, 1996
Ask a church leader about his or her experiences with the news media, then sit back and listen to the stories. You might hear about how a thoughtful news report generated many appreciative calls and letters. You might hear anger or frustration about being misquoted. You might sense either ease or discomfort at giving media interviews.
Then ask a reporter from a general ("secular”) news media outlet about his or her relationships with church leaders, and get ready for more stories — about which ones are accessible and which are secretive, about who gives great quotes and whose jargon needs translating.
Finally, ask a church's news and information staff — or a church periodical's news editor — about what it's like to tell the church's story — either through the general media or to the church's own members. You'll hear about successes, to be sure. But you'll also hear about well-meaning church leaders who wish journalists wouldn't ask about certain topics — and well-meaning journalists who do not find churches or most of their activities to be newsworthy.
As you listen, you will discover the different needs and perspectives of church leaders, church-employed "news” staff and general media reporters on a subject of importance to all of them — how the news of the engagement of the church and its members with each other, the community and the world gets told through the news media, especially daily newspapers, news magazines, radio and television.
This message will offer our perspective as church-employed communicators on why the relationship between church leaders and news reporters sometimes is troubled. And we will make recommendations for improvement. In so doing, we seek to add the voice of the ecumenical community through the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCC) to the voices of others who are working for better relations between churches and news media.
We hope the stories, situation analyses and recommendations in this message will be used in discussions among and between church leaders, churches' news staffs and general news media reporters. Our ultimate goal is better relationships and better news coverage of religion. This message is the fourth in a series of NCC papers that together explore a spectrum of communications concerns. The first three, all policies, include material relevant to conversations about news media issues as they specifically examine, respectively: Violence in Electronic Media and Film, Global Communication for Justice, and The Churches' Role in Media Education and Communication Advocacy. We commend the entire series to you for study and use either separately or in tandem. See the bibliography for information on these and other resources.
Context: A Variety of Communications
The Christian church is a communicating institution. It has a story to tell, and it has been telling that story through words and deeds for two thousand years. "The church" is complex and diverse, and includes hundreds of ecumenical and parachurch organizations, denominations, denominational judicatories, congregations, colleges, seminaries and related ministries. Each part has many stories to tell and has available a vast array of communications channels through which to evangelize, educate, inform, recruit, challenge, comfort and inspire.
Church-related and general news media are among these channels. Church-employed "news and information” staff use many different tools to resource these media, including news releases, news conferences and personal contacts. Other communications channels used by churches include person-to-person and group activities, such as worship services, evangelism campaigns, Sunday school and Vacation Bible School. Churches produce radio and television programs, curricula, audio and video tapes, films, books and periodicals. They also reach out to members and the broader public through telephone calls, computer networking, direct mail, advertising and other sorts of "public relations" and "interpretation" work.
Each communications channel employs its own cadre of professionals who offer themselves to preach, write, act, produce, publish, plan — in short, to apply the skills that ensure quality. Each has its own goals and requirements, problems and possibilities.
The distinctions among three communications functions in particular:
- news and information
- public relations
are important but not always clearly articulated or understood — especially when one person is called upon to staff more than one of these functions at a time!
Indeed, all three functions may have some role in relating to media and all three require good communications skills, including the abilities to recognize and tell a story. All three are in some sense "by” and "for” the church and are involved in helping the church achieve its goals. In that sense they are unlike general media organizations, which cover the church from the "outside” and which maintain a professional distance from, and even an indifference to, the church.
These similarities notwithstanding, "news and information” — described in the next section — is a distinctive discipline from "public relations."
Public relations professionals help church leaders to:
- identify the church's internal and external publics.
- foster healthy, two-way communications and relations with those publics.
This includes the work of stating public relations goals and problems, and pursuing them with research, planning, action and evaluation.
Interpretation is a specialized kind of internal public relations that involves explaining the work done by the church, or by a part of the church, to the church's members.
Its goals may include helping church members to:
- appreciate the work of the church within and beyond the local congregation.
- understand how their offerings are put to work.
The terminology used to describe these and other communications functions varies from communion to communion. Within any communion, it is important for communicators to clarify among themselves their roles and goals, for their own benefit and for the benefit of church leaders who work with them.
The News and Information Function and the Church
In the "news and information” function, professional journalists offer their skills in service to the church, often considering church-related journalism to be their ministry. Some are ordained ministers, others are laity. Their particular craft seeks to tell the story of the church with the words and actions of church leaders, members and organizations. While other forms of communication may seek to convince, inspire, fund-raise or evangelize, "news” seeks to inform, describe and educate. Even so, an article in a daily newspaper might attract someone to the Christian faith, comfort them or even prompt them to send a check.
"News” by definition must be timely. It focuses on what is current, incorporating "background” or "history” insofar as it helps shed light on "the now.” It is interested in giving an account of how organizations, people and ideas impact people's lives and public discourse, for better or worse, and in how institutions — whether political, educational, commercial, social or religious — run their own affairs — again, for better or worse. It focuses on things as they are, not as they should be. Therefore "the news” includes both "good” and "bad” news of what is going on in the church.
News media value objectivity, fairness, accuracy, balance and good "news judgment.” These standards are spelled out in the codes of ethics published by journalism associations, both general and religious. As in all professions, some practitioners fall short of the ideal, and some abuse their craft. Both public "watchdog” groups and journalists themselves regularly critique their own profession through trade magazines and conferences.
News and information operations range from newspapers and magazines that cover the church for the church's members to news services and media relations departments that provide news of the church to the "outside” media. Many news and information operations try to maintain both friendliness with — and a measure of independence from — each of the several bodies or organizations within the church so that they can report on the many and sometimes differing perspectives within the church.
Church Leaders' Perspectives on the News
Consider the following case studies as "discussion starters” on church leaders' relations with news media:
- Mavis is the newly appointed director of social justice ministries for a large, nationally prominent congregation. While busy getting acquainted with her new staff and new responsibilities, she receives a number of interview requests from news media. Mavis felt misrepresented and misquoted by the media in her home city and decides to ignore the calls for now. Still, she feels guilty at sidestepping one of the expectations of her new job.
- Malcolm is a church executive who has never had much occasion to speak to the media. He feels tongue-tied and flustered in such interviews. But last night he learned that one of the pastors under his supervision has been arrested for helping refugees cross into the United States illegally. The pastor is in jail, and reporters from that state are calling him for information and interviews. Malcolm is nervous and unsure how to respond.
Churches appreciate getting positive, accurate news coverage. Many church leaders enjoy their contacts with the media, and many have taken training in how to give interviews to print and broadcast reporters. Many denominational and ecumenical leaders support a strong communications unit that includes news media relations and church-owned news outlets.
But some church leaders are uncomfortable dealing with the media. They cite sensationalism in the general news media and a tendency to focus on crisis, conflict and controversy rather than on how churches foster unity and serve their communities. They bemoan a lack of media interest in the week-in, week-out ministries of the church.
They complain that they are too often misquoted and that reporters too often are uninformed or even hostile. General media coverage of religion, they say, is narrow and superficial. The general news media do not always report the complexities of religious thought and structure and do not always use the language of the churches.
Some church leaders contend that news media coverage of the church's weaknesses and failings is inappropriate, and that the church's problems should be dealt with outside the view of the public and perhaps even of their particular organization's membership at large. They cite the need for confidentiality of sensitive deliberations, for example of a governing committee sharply divided on a difficult issue. They cite the right to privacy of, for example, church leaders accused of financial malfeasance or sexual misconduct.
Some church leaders contend that their organization's news and information staff, magazines and news broadcasts should put them and their churches in the best possible light. They want good news spread liberally and bad news suppressed. They fear that negative coverage will hurt contributions and scare away members.
Covering the Church: Journalists' Perspectives
Consider the following case studies as "discussion starters” on secular media journalists' experiences covering the churches:
- Stan normally covers the local religion beat in a mid-sized city. This weekend a major conference will bring 8,000 delegates to town from a church he's not well acquainted with. He calls the church headquarters for help, but all the staff is en route to the event. He needs data on this church and facts about the conference, but he doesn't know whom to ask among event planners. Stan feels lost.
- Betty is a daily newspaper journalist covering a church's executive policy board meeting. Halfway into the meeting, a closed session is called. No reason has been given, nor is the issue to be under discussion identified. Four hours later, committee members emerge without formally reporting how they handled the matter. Betty immediately goes to work interviewing committee members in the hall, and calls some at home. She learns that criminal charges have been filed against a top elected official and manages to file a story based on the information she gathered. The next day, Betty is soundly criticized by church officials for revealing "sensitive” or confidential information.
General news media have a wide influence, including on church members. They are powerful shapers of people's perceptions of what is reality, what is true, what is important. At their best, they help us understand our world and equip us with information we need to act responsibly as members of human society and stewards of creation.
Many general daily newspapers, several major radio and television news networks and a handful of local television stations have religion news specialists on their staffs. Their trade association, the Religion Newswriters Association (RNA), counts 200 members, although fewer than 70 report religion full time. The RNA seeks to encourage and improve religion newswriting through an annual meeting and competitions, a regular newsletter and peer-to-peer contacts.
RNA members would be quick to agree that general media should hire more religion beat reporters and take their training more seriously. The Freedom Forum First Amendment Center study Bridging the Gap: Religion and the News Media comments that many more people worship at weekend religious services than attend sports events. Yet general news media usually have a team of sports writers but rarely more than one religion news writer, and most local newspapers and broadcast news outlets have none. There, the reporter asked to cover the occasional religion news story often has no background on this complex beat that covers dozens of faiths and hundreds of Christian denominations and has sometimes-baffling structures, practices and vocabularies.
The Bridging the Gap study confirmed that it is ignorance much more than hostility that results in inaccurate or inadequate general news media coverage of religion. Even though a majority (72 percent) of U.S. newspaper editors say religion is personally important to them, they often believe religion is a strictly private matter and don't recognize its general news value.
Religion news specialists themselves agree that the general news media do not exist to promote or publicize the churches. Those media, and not the churches, determine which stories have general news value.
Religion news professionals sometimes find church leaders inaccessible and secretive and not open to working with them. They lament some church leaders' seeming inability to translate theological or ecclesiastical jargon into language readily understood by a general readership. They complain about some church leaders' insensitivity to the requirements of their craft as they struggle to explain complex issues on tight deadlines. They need trustworthy and timely information from church leaders and church-employed journalists on both "good news” and "bad news” stories.
In the Middle: Churches' News and Information Staff
Consider the following case studies as "discussion starters” on church-employed news staffers' relations with church leaders and news reporters for general media:
- Harvey is getting calls from the media requesting comment from his boss, the denomination's president, on a threat of religious terrorism. The president is on his way to a Sunday school jamboree and has assigned assistants to draft something he can look at later in the week. These assistants are all in meetings. The journalists are on deadline. Harvey is frustrated.
- Rhonda has a breaking news story to write, and reporters already are calling with questions about it. The CEO of a major church-related hospital has resigned abruptly. At last month's meeting of the medical ministry board, nothing was said about the CEO but an unusual amount of time was spent in closed meetings. Rumors are rampant throughout the church and community that the CEO has a life-threatening illness, maybe AIDS. Rhonda's phone messages from reporters are piling up and all she can offer is a one-sentence statement. Rhonda wants to respect the needs of the hospital and the former CEO, but also worries that she and her church are losing credibility with the media.
Church-employed news and information staff work both with church leaders and news reporters to get the church's story told. Some work as a bridge between their organization and the general news media, whose audience is the broader public. Some focus on sharing news through church-owned media, whose primary audience is the denomination or organization's membership. Some do both.
Professional journalists working within church structures sometimes feel caught in the middle between church leaders and general news media. They have to balance competing needs — of daily journalists on tight deadlines and of church decision-makers' need to build consensus in their deliberative processes.
News staff sometimes hear generalized complaints about "the media” from their colleagues, who might also only half-jokingly accuse them of being too friendly with outside journalists. They sometimes don't have the full and free access they need to their organization's leaders and decision-making forums in order to fulfill their news media liaison responsibilities. They sometimes are subjected to pressure, even censorship by church leaders who want them to report only what puts their denomination or organization in a positive light.
The picture of the world given a broad audience of readers, listeners and viewers by the general news media is inadequate and incomplete without news of the church, its activities and its perspectives on issues and events. The church is a societal institution of enormous size and importance, and religion is an important part of most people's lives. Religion intersects every aspect of life — politics, family, education, business, even recreation.
Through news media, Christians can add salt and leaven to public debate on issues affecting people's lives in their communities, nation and world. Media share news about church actions that may be of interest and help to the members of their large audiences. Coverage can help build understanding and appreciation of the diversity of religious expressions and viewpoints. For all these reasons, the church needs to include the news and information function in its communications portfolio.
In general, church leaders and communicators can help ensure that the churches' activities and perspectives are better represented in news media by:
- Working to establish better relationships with professionals in the secular media,
- Stressing the importance of communication in church structures, and
- Opening business proceedings and making church leaders and vital information readily accessible.
Some specific things the church can do
1. Teach church leaders how to relate to news media.
Sharpened media relations skills can help leaders describe church ministries and viewpoints in a way easily understood by their members, secular journalists and the broader public. Church leaders should seek out such training, in consultation with professional communicators in the church.
2. Build media relationships.
Church leaders and their news and information staff can gain the respect and trust of the secular media by responding quickly and truthfully to calls for information. Take the initiative for keeping in touch with outside media representatives. Speak up about bad coverage, but be sure to temper any criticism with praise for jobs well done.
Church groups, the NCC Communication Commission and its News Committee are encouraged to arrange meetings of church leaders, church-employed communicators, and general media journalists for wider discussion and understanding.
3. Employ and support its own media professionals.
Church-employed media professionals understand the needs both of their organizations and of news media outlets. They can be a helpful liaison between them. In addition, church-owned media have an important role to play in keeping members informed. To do their jobs, all church communicators need good, trust-filled relationships with church leaders. They need to receive important information early. They need to be included regularly in administrative decision-making circles where their advice is valued and respected. They need adequate funding to carry out communication programs and strategies.
4. Define news, public relations and interpretation.
Confusion among these vital roles can hamper communication in and outside of religious institutions. Clearly explain how the functions interrelate, along with any differences.
5. Let the "sunshine” in: adopt open meetings policies that clearly describe the conditions under which meetings may be closed.
Openness is essential in the church's relationships with its own and general news media. "Sunshine” or open meetings provisions enhance accountability through the free flow of information to members, funders and the public. (An example of an open meetings policy is attached.)
6. Increase accessibility.
An open atmosphere earns the church the right to add its voice to public debate. News media need direct access to people and information in church organizations. The more controversial or difficult the story, the more important it is for church leaders to make themselves more accessible to reporters. Media representatives need prompt, accurate, fair, complete and unbiased accounts of church goings-on. Routine and consistent dissemination of news releases, backgrounders, documentation and other helps increase understanding.
7. Support media literacy.
Churches can provide an invaluable service by teaching media literacy — that is, by helping their members and the general public better understand the media industry and be wiser consumers.
8. Encourage your denomination to adopt this message.
This message is meant to be a model and a tool for discussion across the church — in local congregations, regional judicatories and headquarters, both among staff and members of governing bodies. Encourage appropriate bodies to adopt this message as their own. And, especially, encourage its use as a basis for discussion among church leaders, church communicators and representatives of secular news media outlets. The goal is better understanding of each others' concerns and perspectives and better news media coverage of religion.
9. Be prepared.
In the church, as in all institutions, crises sometimes happen. It is important to have a plan detailing what church leaders and communicators will do in such cases, part of which will be a media plan.
Reporters and editors for secular media outlets are encouraged to
1. Acknowledge religion's importance in life.
Religion, spirituality and faith are as important to the public as weather, crime and fashion. News media outlets are encouraged to routinely assign staff to cover issues involving religion and spirituality.
2. Treat religion reporting as a professional specialty.
Increased understanding of religious institutions, in general, and members' views on contemporary issues can significantly improve religion reporting. Well-trained journalists are essential to adequately cover the faith issues of the day. News media enterprises are encouraged to treat religion reporting as a specialty area — like government, science or education — and commit personnel and resources for its improvement.
In this message, churches and their leaders, along with professional communicators who work inside and outside the church, have all received their portion of definition, illustration and a bit of exhortation. We hope each group can learn from ongoing conversation and continue to work together with care and thoughtfulness.
Church leaders are encouraged to come to terms with the power of the news media and acknowledge their value in society. Church-employed news and information professionals can help them cultivate relationships with media and use their storytelling power to the glory of God. Religion news reporters are encouraged to educate themselves about the age-old church and its countless changing faces. They are urged not to underestimate the moral authority of the church in the lives of their readers. Church-employed news staffers can open doors of understanding for reporters and enrich their knowledge of Christ's church and mission.
Together, church leaders, news reporters and church communication professionals are telling the story, sometimes gloriously inspiring, sometimes painfully difficult. When their disparate assignments are carried out with mutual respect, a kind of unity can come forth in the fascinating story they share.
Appendix to Churches and the News Media: Telling Our Story
Bylaws, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA
Section 4: Open Meetings
A. All meetings of the National Council of Churches' General Board (committees and subcommittees); the Council's units, committees, working groups and their Conferences, Consultations, and similar meetings of Sponsored Related Movements are ordinarily open to the public. The Council shall demonstrate its openness by construing this rule liberally. The application of this rule is also recommended to all denominational and caucus meetings held in the context of a General Board meeting or for the purpose of influencing the Board's decisions.
B. Portions of the meetings may be closed if the closed session is authorized by two-thirds of those present and eligible to vote, a quorum being present, and if the vote is taken during an open meeting and duly recorded and entered in the minutes. The reason for closing the portion of the meeting must be stated publicly and no unrelated matters discussed in such a meeting. A meeting closed to the public shall be limited to matters allowed to be exempted from discussion at open meetings in paragraph C of this rule. Nothing in this Section or in paragraph C of this rule shall be construed to require that any meeting be closed to the public.
C. Only those portions of meetings may be closed that concern the following subjects:
1. Consideration of bids for property acquisition or sale.
2. Negotiation of salaries and/or evaluation of staff performance unless the staff member directly involved has requested an open session.
3. Discussion within personnel search committees involving evaluations of candidates for staff positions.
4. Discussions within nominating committees where candidates are being evaluated.
5. Discussion with respect to collective bargaining or litigation involving the Council, where an open meeting would have a detrimental effect on the bargaining or litigation position of the Council.
6. Cases currently pending in court where the counsel of the Council advises that such public discussion might prejudice the legal proceedings.
7. Discussion regarding the deployment of security personnel or devices.
8. Presentation by a person from another country where there is a real or apparent danger that disclosure of this information would jeopardize life or liberty and where a written request for a closed session has been made to the appropriate chairperson in advance.
9. Rare and exceptional cases where three-fourths of those present and eligible to vote approve, a quorum being present, and where a written request for a closed session has been given to the appropriate chairperson in advance.
D. The intention of this rule is that decisions reached in any closed session be publicly announced immediately following the session, or if that is not possible, a specific date be announced when the information will be available. It is understood that certain personnel matters and discussions on the deployment of security devices may not be able to be made public.
E. Meetings required by this rule to be open to the public shall be conducted in areas having reasonable facilities for observation by the public.
F. Observers to a meeting may be subject to any charges or registration fees paid by the official participants.
G. Since staff are not voting members of the Council and do not constitutionally represent their denominations, staff meetings are exempted from this rule.
H. Notice of meetings.
1. Each unit of the Council shall prepare for the Office of the General Secretary by January 1 a schedule of all regular meetings, which shall contain the dates and places of such meetings in the ensuing year. At least one copy of the schedule of regular meetings shall be sent to the member communions by the General Secretary, and it shall be available to media outlets through the Education, Communication and Discipleship Unit.
2. Special meetings of the Council or a unit may be scheduled. Notice of dates, times and places of such meetings shall be posted in the Office of the General Secretary at least ninety-six hours before the actual meeting. The announcements will be available to media outlets through the Education, Communication and Discipleship Unit.
3. When meetings are necessary to discuss unforeseen emergency conditions, an emergency meeting of the Council or a unit may be scheduled. Notice of the date, time and place of such an emergency meeting shall be given to media outlets by the Education, Communication and Discipleship Unit.
I. Voting and Speaking.
This section does not replace representational voting with popular voting nor provide a popular right to speak.