Our Own Worst (Media) Enemies

I’ve recently written here about how Christians, and pastors in particular, and evangelical pastors in particular particular, complain about how the media treat them and their faith and then sabotage reporters’ attempts to set the record straight by not talking to reporters when the reporters actually call!

After this article was published, I heard immediately from several experienced Christian communication professionals who echoed my concerns. One of them testified that in his long experience in a different medium (radio), Christians would moan about how the media were biased, ignorant, etc., etc., and yet he found it almost impossible to get evangelical pastors to come on his show. And these pastors are the “professional talkers” of their churches–and who are supposed to equip the saints  for conversing with their neighbours about the gospel!

What’s to be done? Well, for one thing, my colleagues and I at Regent College need to think about offering some media training to our students, and perhaps also to area pastors. Do you know of any seminary or graduate school that does offer such training and offers it well?

Someone is going to tell our story in the media: Why shouldn’t we want it to be us?

0 Responses to “Our Own Worst (Media) Enemies”

  1. P. W. Dunn

    That’s right. Blame the victim.

    You may be touching on a problem to be sure, and certainly training at Regent may help–there certainly was never any such course when I was there. Yet I’d have little desire to speak with people who have proven themselves ready to twist what Christians believe and say and who have regular experience in distorting truth.

  2. SursumCorda

    Why shouldn’t we want it to be us? Perhaps because we’ve been burned too often. Every news story that I’ve known directly ends up inaccurate when published, whether print or broadcast — often in minor ways, sometimes major. And who doesn’t know the frustration of being misquoted, or having his words taken out of context?

    All the more reason we could use some training in how to present our stories so that reporters — who may have the best of intentions but also have their own prejudices and often a complete lack of knowledge of the subject — will be more likely to get the true picture.

    If Regent weren’t nearly 3500 miles away, I might take such a course myself.

    • P. W. Dunn

      I’m not sure even a course would help that many people. I am pretty slow in responding and being a quick-witted person like Prof. Stackhouse, for example, is a gift, not something one can learn in a course. But being media savvy will not stop them from lying about Christians.

  3. Andy Crouch

    The interesting thing is that even in the Christian media, even when our intentions are absolutely and demonstrably friendly, it is absurdly difficult to get pastors, at least ones of any prominence, to speak on the record. (The exceptions, like Rick Warren, are the ones you’ve heard about, because, well, they are the exceptions who are willing to talk.) There is perhaps no profession other than judges (who have countless very good reasons to avoid notoriety) that is more guarded.

    To be honest, it perplexes me, and I can’t help thinking that often it’s a reflection of the peculiar kind of power, fame, unaccountability, self-regard, and self-imposed busyness that can so easily accompany church leadership. Those are temptations that come with any prominent position, but the difference is that pastors are hermetically sealed into their institutions in a way that few other comparably public figures are.

    All that said, I do agree with SursumCorda: the sad truth is that if you know any of the details behind a story, with very few exceptions you will find the media accounts wanting. (And not just in religion reporting.) And this is a somewhat unusual circumstance where the more local the media (and therefore one would think the closer to the sources and the story) the more sloppy and unprofessional the approach is likely to be. The simplest approach: unless you are speaking to someone who covers religion full time for the national media (those folks are usually very good and very fair in my experience), absolutely insist that they read back to you any direct quotes they want to use. And then, as I think Terry Mattingly of GetReligion has suggested, make your own recording of the whole interview and release it if they distort your words.

  4. Tim Farley

    I think that training pastors to engage the media is a great idea. I know I would be interested in this type of training. Learning how to avoid the potential pitfalls that have already been brought up by Andy Crouch and SursumCorda would be of great value.

  5. poserorprophet

    Interesting comments.

    Odd that evangelicals can be so suspicious of mainstream news media when it comes to matters of religion, but so accepting when it comes to matters of, oh, pretty much everything else (economics, foreign policy, etc.).

    If one were to assist Christians in learning how to communicate with the mainstream media, I reckon that a proper study of those media would be a good starting place. If we are to speak to (or through) the news, then we better learn how to read the news first.

    • P. W. Dunn

      I, for one, regard the “mainstream” news media to be tendentious on pretty much every subject. While I have been this way since about my 13th year, it is a growing phenomenon among many; most conservatives, for example, believe that in the last US election the partisan media (my preferred term for the so-called “mainstream” media) decided to destroy Sarah Palin and her family and to exalt B.H.O.

  6. Bene D

    I was going to speak about media until I read PW.

    PW, you couldn’t have been more cliche than if you’d been scripted.

    I find myself reacting to your viewpoint with a familar fatigue.

    Ministers have more in common vocationally with journalists than either realize.

    If you can offer this to your students, what about putting them on the job for a week with a couple of outlets – broadcast and print – and have them shadow?

    Part of their assignment could be to do article/pieces independent of the journalist who has taken them along for the ride.

    Already Reverends would be a different cup of tea. I’d give them time to air their grievances/assumptions (like PW), frame, and do a KISS style seminar with them.

    National charities offer their volunteers media training. The base knowledge in the groups is about the same, might be a good place to start looking.

    Brian Stiller would be a top notch teacher for a course like this.

    I’m glad you got feedback from professionals Dr. Stackhouse, I hope this happens.
    And I’ll chip in to send PW.;^)

    • P. W. Dunn

      Bene, No need to send me. I’m not a reverend. Nor do I need or desire your charity. Perhaps you could explain what you mean by cliche. It seems to me that you think someone else wrote my “grievance/assumption”.

  7. Brent Wittmeier

    I’m an evangelical who went from seminary to journalism school to a newspaper (all in Canada), and I have to tell you there’s nowhere near the willful bias most evangelicals seem to see. Great article, John, and you are a natural when it comes to being an evangelical in the media.

    There’s definitely ample ignorance even among the most sympathetic voices, and undoubtedly something worse than ignorance among others. What’s especially pernicious is the reductionist belief that religion = politics in disguise. The media also tend to fall in love with the “why religion needs to change” spokespeople peddling their books.

    I’ve really been looking forward to reading Haskell’s book, but in the meantime, I’ve stumbled on another, Quentin Schultze’s edited book, Understanding Evangelical Media. An excellent resource! There’s a helpful chapter on evangelicals and the need for public relations.

    And as a Regent grad, I’d have to say I think it’d be a great idea to include p.r. modules in MDiv classes. I’ve often thought about the idea myself. Why should corporations and governments have all the media savvy?

    • P. W. Dunn

      I am a very authentic, unscripted cliché. I’m still not sure what you mean, nor why you react with “familiar fatigue”. I’m not even sure if you feel sympathy for what I’ve said or disdain (although I suspect it is the latter, since cliché isn’t typically a compliment).

  8. John Stackhouse

    We have to decide whether we want our message to get out or whether we are going to yield the popular media to other people’s messages.

    If we want it to get out, then we need to learn how to articulate it in ways that will best survive the filtering that news media put on it: prejudices, yes, but also sheer unfamiliarity with us or our message, time pressures on overtaxed journalists working too many beats, and more.

    And we will simply have to put up with an irreducible amount of “signal distortion.” Just this week, a journalist whom I count as a friend quoted me in such a way as to badly distort the intent of testimony I gave in court. It made me look bad and it could easily have been construed as helping the other side in the dispute. And that’s someone whom I respect and like and who, I am quite sure, has no animus against me.

    What’s the alternative? Say nothing? Then we send none of our positive signals, so to speak, into the system at all. That doesn’t mean there won’t be any truth in it (we don’t have a corner on truth), but it does mean that our distinctive ways of understanding and articulating truth won’t even be partially, distortedly heard. And I think that’s not acceptable for those who preach good news any way we can.

    I have contended with reporters and editors of major news agencies throughout North America: ABC News, NBC News, PBS, CBC, CTV, Global, The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Globe and Mail, The National Post, and many more. (To date I have given close to a thousand interviews.) I have sometimes been deeply frustrated by their take on this or that issue. I know the pain of being misquoted or totally ignored. But I also have had my ideas and words focused by such people, and I am grateful for the many times I have been granted the privilege of addressing their audiences.

    And Andy Crouch says what most seasoned journalists will tell you also: No one is entirely happy with how things are reported. Businesspeople don’t always agree with business news; sports fans often groan at sports reporting; economists and physicists roll their eyes at how journalists try to explain their fields; and on and on.

    But I keep trying to help journalists do their worthy work–because it is crucial work–and I keep trying also to add my pinch of salt and matchstick of light as I can. It’s not for everyone to do, of course, but more of us should be trying to do it and do it well.

  9. Andy Rowell

    I think pastors have good reasons for not wanting to be quoted in the press on controversial issues and that is what reporters are usually asking about. Have you ever seen Joel Osteen or Rick Warren interviewed by Larry King? King (understandably) always tries to ask them about controversial issues. “So are Jews going to burn in hell if they don’t acknowledge Jesus? How much do you make? Are you anti-gay? What happened with your wife getting charged with a misdemeanor on that plane?” The job of reporters is to write interesting stuff so they always try to make the pastors say something interesting. Pastors are generally not trying to be interesting but rather trusted fair arbiters–focusing on the essentials in their preaching and teaching. They don’t want to be known (and they don’t want their church and its members to be known) as anti-homosexual, anti-Jewish, anti-abortion, anti-science, anti-women, anti-Israel, or anti-tolerant and these are the kind of questions they get asked about. There are academics with more expertise about controversial theological questions and ethical dilemmas and pastors know it.

    Of course, politicians (and everyone else interviewed by the media) get tough questions when they are interviewed. The late Tim Russert of Meet the Press was known for always badgering politicians if they had any interest in running for president–trying to expose their pride and forcing them into contradicting themselves later.

    I remember a great quote by Professor Stackhouse–he said something like, “Reporters always ask me about what is going to happen in the future. My wife reminds me I am a better historian than fortune-teller.” Happy is the pastor who only talks to reporters about things they know about.

  10. John Stackhouse

    Okay, Andy, but let’s explore this point a bit further, and in two respects.

    1. The reporter I quoted was trying to get pastors to talk about evangelical success, about what happens in their churches that causes them to thrive, what their main message is, et cetera. Surely pastors should jump at this sort of opportunity.

    2. You speak of pastors not wanting to be branded regarding their views of homosexuality, feminism, the Middle East, etc. Well, guess what, brother? Those are the sorts of questions people do care about that connect with religious matters. We may wish they had burning interest in, say, the forgiveness of sins or the healing of lusts–and some do, to be sure. But in my experience, if I won’t talk about these sorts of matters, I don’t get to talk about religion at all.

    So what kind of training can pastors give congregants in dealing with the issues of the day and in capitalizing on conversations about felt needs in order to direct people to the Real Questions and The Answer to those questions if they won’t/can’t deal with journalists asking them such questions?

    It sounds too much to me, Andy, like you’re saying, “We won’t talk to people about the questions that interest them. We’ll talk instead about the questions that we know ought to interest them, and we’ll see if we can interest them in them.” I hope you’re not saying that . . . !

  11. Andy Rowell

    I agree that the pastors should have answered their phones when reporters called about “how are you reaching out this Easter season?” but I just do not see much media coverage of that kind of thing. I guess I mostly read national news. In big cities like Vancouver or in national coverage, it seems to me most reporters would rather talk to professors at theological schools than local pastors. Reporters usually want to talk to the highest person in the hierarchy or the most prestigious expert they can find. I’m not sure what the exact parallel would be but regarding education issues, teachers and principals aren’t interviewed; rather the chair of the school board or the Secretery of Education (USA), or even better a professor of education or psychology (at Harvard) is sought after.

    I think you are right that occasionally local news (TV and newspaper) does take an interest in what a local pastor thinks of some local event–school board elections, building permit squabbling, sex education, roller coasters named The Apocalypse, or a moral failure of a politician.

    On these controversial current issues, I would think most often pastors would want to say something like, “This is a difficult issue. There is not one unanimous response about this specific issue among all Christians and there are even those in my church who would disagree about what exactly should be done. But I would think that all Christians would probably want to take into account a couple of principles in considering a response to this issue. First, . . . ”

    (Incidentally, this is how I would approach controversial issues from the pulpit as well I think).

    If a response like this was printed, I suppose it is possible that a person who is not a Christian would hear the quote from the pastor in the news report and say, “That person sounds remarkably likeable and thoughtful. Maybe I should look up that pastor’s church and reconsider Christianity anew” or at a minimum, “It is good to hear thoughtful Christians exist.”

    I’m all for that.

  12. John Stackhouse

    Wow, Andy: You must be an academician to talk like that! 😉

    Both academicians and pastors need to learn how to speak (and write) with more concision and vividness. Interviews, like sermons, die with too many qualifications.

    Indeed, we have to realize that while we think we’re being more precise with our many words, we are raising clouds of dust rather than sharpening the focus. We need instead to find ways of trading a little subtlety (or even just plain verboseness) for clear, direct speech that will communicate truth much more effectively.

    Hear what I’m saying now (!): I’m all for nuance in the right genre. Every once in a while I myself write something in academese because I judge the occasion to demand it.

    But when it comes to public speaking, in our quest for ever more nuance we get rapidly diminishing returns and end up actually communicating less. So be briefer, more basic, and therefore more communicative.

    If I may, here’s how you might say in eleven words what you said in about sixty: “Christians disagree about this issue. But all of them/us agree that . . . “–and then you cite your two principles.

    You know another reason why a lot of pastors don’t want to talk to the press? Because few of them have really thought through (1) what they do think of A or B and (2) how they would both articulate and commend that opinion in public. Well, you pastors are our main theological thinkers and talkers–beyond the even fewer of us with academic vocations–so you need to be thinking and talking well on our behalf, as well as being examples to us of how to do that in our own lives.

    I can’t see letting pastors off the hook yet, Andy. Too many media people–for both secular and religious media–have read my blog piece and have e-mailed me with “Amen” for me to think that this is mostly an issue facing only national media and individuals of national stature.

    “Always be ready to give an answer,” counsels the Apostle Peter–someone who, according to the Gospels, certainly could have used some media training! Let’s get ourselves ready–whether the next call comes from the Times, the local radio show, or the neighbour next door.

  13. Chris Hawley

    As an evangelical and so-called communications professional (whatever that is), this is a subject very close to my heart. I strongly believe Christian leaders ought to be more active, capable and engaged when it comes to public communications and the media. Some of the Christian leaders I admire the most are ones that not only consider media engagement important, they see it as a crucial part of their ministry.

    That said, I think media training for Christian leaders has to be supported by some sort of pedagogy. We’re not talking about training a bunch of NASA engineers to talk in soundbites about space missions; I suspect there are unique challenges involved for Christian leaders. I’ve even wondered from time to time whether the essence of the faith is something that’s fundamentally incompatible with ultra-concise media formats. (Probably not, but we have to keep in mind there are entire blog, co-edited by my friend Douglas LeBlanc, devoted to how badly the media covers religious topics: getreligion.org).

    In any event, what about Regent hosting, say, a 3-day conference on public and media communications for Christian leaders? I think there would be a great deal of interest.

  14. francois taylor

    I think you should be a little more biting in your comment: the tragedy is that too many denominations and churches dont understand the importance of training our pastors so that they provide not only spiritual leadership but also an intellectual leadership as well. We need pastors that are able to decipher and even weigh in in the debates that are taking place in society.


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