Ross Douthat, who is Catholic, wishes Pope Benedict were more media-savvy. Here’s part of the advice he offers the Vatican:
Again, the Catholic Church will always face particular difficulties in its dealings with the press. But the rules that apply to politicians also apply to popes. Responding swiftly is always better than responding slowly, and direct statements are better than oblique allusions. Attacks on the media tend to spur journalists to greater unfairness, whereas acknowledging legitimate critiques gives you more credibility, not less, when it comes time to rebut slanderous charges. If you think there’s a story the media isn’t covering, then you need to give them the story, in its most convincing and comprehensive form, instead of just complaining that they aren’t telling it. And if you have a statement that deserves maximum visibility, you’re better off having the pope deliver it himself, rather than punting it to a spokesman.
All true, and all necessary. Some version of that quote ought to be blown up and pinned to every wall and flat surface in the business office of every church, chancery, synagogue, and so forth, in the country. As a religious conservative and a professional journalist, and therefore on both sides of this divide, I would say the following to religious eaders, particularly those from conservative traditions:
1. Of course the media are biased against you — but that doesn’t meant all reporters want to be unfair. Given the well-documented secularist-oriented beliefs of journalists, it is rather unlikely that the reporter you’ll be dealing with has no preconceived notions about your religious group. (See this for a recent obnoxious example.) Still, you shouldn’t assume that all reporters are hostile. If you do, you’ll undermine your own ability to get fair coverage. Similarly, if you find out that a reporter shares your faith, you shouldn’t assume that he’ll cut you some slack, and you shouldn’t put him in a position of feeling like he owes you special consideration because of that shared faith.
I once worked for a publication that often took complaints from Religious Group A, and Religious Group B. Representatives from Religious Group A would come visit us and act very professional. They would praise us for the good things we did, but they had their complaints against us well-documented, and presented a factual, logical, non-hysterical case for their side. Representatives from Religious Group B would come around and do just the opposite: they blustered, they accused, they made sweeping generalizations without the facts to back them up, and they seemed to think the way to influence our coverage was to browbeat us. Guess which group’s complaints were taken more seriously?
3. Don’t be defensive. It makes it seem like you have something to hide. Return the phone call. Don’t make it hard for the reporter to be fair to you. Once I called an imam’s office to tell him we were writing an editorial about something he’d said or done, and wanted to get his side of the story. He refused to talk to me. Later, a local Muslim leader cited the editorial I wrote as an example of biased coverage. I told him I’d called to get the imam’s side of the story, but he refused to talk to me. “Well,” said the Muslim leader, “can you blame him? You all are so biased.”
This kind of thing is not helpful, either to the journalist or to the religious group.
4. Don’t assume journalists know all they should know about you. Religious people often live inside a bubble, and don’t know what they don’t know. We all do to a certain extent, but journalists tend to be particularly ignorant of the world of religion, or at least certain parts of it, because it’s not part of their everyday experience. I’ve talked with religious folks before who assume that they’re being deliberately ignored by the media because of the lack of coverage; they (the religious folks) know so much about their own religious bubble because it’s where they live. The truth is, the press may not even know they exist. If you live in a world in which religion is a big part of your community and your daily life, it might be hard for you to appreciate that what is obvious to you is not obvious to everybody else. Rather than complain that journalists know little or nothing about your religious group, think about ways you can help them learn. It’s easy to grinch about basic errors the media make in their religion reporting and analysis, but you do nothing to get better-informed coverage if you don’t come up with ways to help the media report more accurately on your group.
Plus, think about it: everybody at your church on Sunday might be laughing at the stupid theological error in the local paper’s story about your denomination, but there are far, far more people in the community who read that story and took it for granted that the information was accurate. Few of them are likely to read the correction, either. It’s in your interest, and in the media’s interest, to get all the facts right the first time. Help yourselves by helping them.
5. If news about your church really is bad, it’s not unfair to report it. It’s not evidence that the media are out to get you if they’re pursuing a story that’s legitimate news. Nobody wants to see bad news about themselves or their religion in the newspaper, but it’s neither just nor accurate to assume that the only reason reporters are covering it is bigotry or bias. As Ross said, acknowledging the truth of a story gives you more credibility.
6. Don’t let the only time editors or reporters hear from you is when you have something to complain about. Reporters are people too, and most take real pride in their work. If a reporter has done a good job on a particular story, drop her an e-mail or a phone call to let her know. Not only does it encourage better reporting, it also gives you credibility when you have to call to complain about something. What’s more, it humanizes you in the reporter’s eyes, and makes it more likely that she’s going to give you a fuller hearing next time there’s a story involving you and your group. A colleague of mine pointed today to this NYT Magazine profile of Politico journalist Mike Allen, one upshot of which is that journalism comes out of a web of relationships.
Any of you readers have constructive advice, based on your own experience or observations, on how religious groups and leaders can better handle the news media?
Now, below the jump, a few tips for how reporters should handle religious people, especially religious conservatives:
Similarly, it is a huge mistake to try to apply a secular political template to understanding religion. Archbishop Gomez, the incoming Catholic prelate in Los Angeles, is a theologically conservative, Opus Dei bishop. But he’s fiercely pro-immigrant. Is he a liberal or a conservative? Are those labels even useful here?
1. Understand that you’re dealing with people who don’t trust you. Religious folks, especially if they come from a conservative faith tradition, often expect the media to misunderstand them or to be out to get them. This is not an unfounded conclusion. They don’t want to be burned. You should reassure them. If they’re conservatives of some sort, they probably already feel besieged and misunderstood. Work extra hard to reassure them.
2. They probably don’t understand how newsrooms work. They don’t get, for example, that whatever crazypants thing Maureen Dowd says on the op-ed page about religion, it has nothing to do with the way the newsroom itself is run. The editorial department is a wholly separate creature from the newsroom. Many people don’t grasp that, and may hold you responsible for things said on the opinion pages. Be prepared to explain this to them.
3. Don’t assume you know how religion works. When reporting on religious liberals, you are more likely than not to be dealing with people who have a view of religion that jibes well with modern secular values. Religious conservatives — Christian, Jewish, Muslim and so forth — have a different view of religious epistemology (ways of knowing). You need to understand that, and to respect it, even if you don’t agree with it. For truly religious people, their faith is not an add-on to their lives; it’s the center of their lives, and you need to be sensitive to that.
4. More broadly, put your labels aside. There is a lot more diversity within religious communities than outsiders may think. Not all Baptists are conservatives on every point, and you cannot tell anything about what a Catholic believes from the fact that he or she identifies as a Catholic. Religious identity is highly fluid in this culture, and labels often conceal as much as they reveal. Along those lines…
5. Don’t take the authorized version as the last word. Just because the bishop, the pastor, the rabbi or the imam says something, don’t assume that it’s representative of what the religious community actually believes, or is an accurate gauge of the group’s sentiments. Remember, religious leaders have an interest in presenting a particular line of argument as normative within their community — meaning that they have a vested interest in spin. Guard against confirmation bias in your reporting — that is, hearing what you want to hear. I’ve seen reporters who would be highly skeptical of what a Catholic bishop (for example) had to say about an issue turn around and swallow hook, line and sinker what a Muslim religious authority had to say — this, because they were predisposed to skepticism about Catholics, and wanted to believe comforting words from the Muslim (despite the evidence in the particular case I’m thinking of). An abiding healthy skepticism (as distinct from cynicism) of authority is a good thing when trying to suss out the real story. Which brings us to…
6. Don’t forget that churches are political too. They aren’t necessarily political in the same way secular politics are (see No. 3), but most churches have their own factions, pressure groups, and so forth — all of which want to spin you a certain way. Each of these likely considers itself the voice of authenticity within the particular religious tradition. Consider what all of these with a handful of salt — and evaluate their claims against the dogmatic norms of the religion, and/or its history and tradition. The internal politics of a church or religious group can be absolutely cutthroat; reporters have to guard against being used by factions — especially if the reporter doesn’t know much about the internal politics of a denomination, church or religious grouping.
7. Try not to take it personally when your reporting upsets religious people. Even if you’ve gone to great lengths to be fair, people may be especially upset if you report something negative about their faith community. You might think that they would be pleased to have criminal activity (say) exposed, but the fact is, their first reaction will likely be one of anger at you for revealing something they would rather have not known — or for holding them up to opprobrium and judgment from the wider community. Religion goes so deep. If somebody finds out the politician they admire was really a crook, it’ll hurt, but it’s not that big a deal, in the grand scheme of things. To learn deeply compromising thing about one’s religious organization or its leadership strikes at a believer’s basic understanding of himself and how the world works. You can’t expect people to be grateful for being so unsettled, at least not at first. That’s no reason to pull punches, of course, but you should be under no illusions as to how your reporting or commentary will likely be received, no matter how fairly and accurately you reported it.
8. Don’t forget to report it if the religious organization takes concrete steps to remedy the problem you’ve identified. Religious folks believe in redemption. If you pointed out their “sin,” take care to point out the work they’ve done — if they’ve done it — to fix the problem and make up for what they did wrong. This adds to your credibility.
Anybody have more to offer? Make your advice constructive; don’t just use this platform to rant.