Christians and the Media

 

microphone

Recently, one of my African bishop friends got into a quagmire with the press. Not realizing that there were "unfriendlies" present from a liberal press outlet, he made a comment that was portrayed badly. All it took was their minimal spin and commentary on "what he meant" rather than just "what he said."  

This has prompted some conversations over the last week with Robert Lundy, the communications officer of the American Anglican Council. Robert is gifted and a "bright lad." (At this stage of life everyone seems to be either a grandchild of mine or a "bright lad" or "lass.") I asked him to send some pointers that he has used in helping prepare for dealing with the press. I thought I'd share what he wrote, but first will make some comments.  

I used to talk with press people at General Conventions when I was still in Egypt. That was child's play compared with the media firestorm around the consecration of Gene Robinson and then again when I was consecrated as a bishop. When Gene Robinson was consecrated, I did a long interview on Nightline. Sadly, the video was edited to portray me as saying exactly the opposite of what I had actually said.    

The interviewer asked me "Why does the church always say 'No.'?" 

I said, "We don't always say 'No.' Often we say yes. 'No,' however, is often the most loving answer. For example, 'No, the treasure isn't over there, it's here!' or 'No, don't touch the hot stove,' or 'No, you can't play in the street.'" 

He asked, "Why does the church say 'No' to homosexuals?" 

I said, "We say what we do because we love them. We say 'No' to behavior that is not helpful, but not to people as people. Everyone is precious to God and ought to be precious to us. Are you aware of the studies that show decades of shorter life span for certain same-sex behaviors? How can the church bless things that damage or shorten people's lives? It's not just that the Bible says negative things about same-sex behavior, we have to love people into wholeness-all of us need that."  

At the end of the interview the whole TV crew burst into applause. The floor director came over and said, "Dude, that was awesome. When this gets out you are going to be famous. That is the best interview we have ever seen about any of this!"  

That night, my clip on Nightline had me saying "...the Bible says negative things about same-sex behavior." That's it. 

After it aired, I spoke with the editor and challenged him on what he had done. I said, "It is unethical to edit someone to make it look like they are saying exactly the opposite thing of what they said." 

He said, "We had time constraints." 

I said, "I gave you good TV. The quotes were pithy and short and on topic. You just didn't like what I was saying." 

He said, "Nobody is interested in your position." 

With that kind of media bias, it is not possible to get good press. Now I don't do recorded interviews unless I am given approval of the final product. I tell them that they are free to say that I am a jerk, but they just have to portray my part honestly. Live interviews are different. They can't do a chop job as easily. 

If you are going to speak with press people, here are suggestions from Robert about dealing with media. 

Christian Guidelines for Engaging the Media 

Today’s Christian leader must be aware of the ability that media and mass communications have to help or hurt their ministry. I often read or hear news reports that portray Christians as aloof, detached, illogical or just plain old goofy. Part of this, I believe, has to do with the fact that we are, as scripture says, aliens and strangers in this world (1 Peter 2:11). However, I also believe that if Christians raised their “media ‘IQ’” they could still honor and faithfully reflect their identity in Christ as well as effectively communicate to the reporter or audience who may have a secular worldview.

To help my brothers and sisters in this area of communications I humbly submit these brief tips on working with “the media” and, to a larger extent, principals of mass communications. The list is not exhaustive nor is it perfect. However, I do think that Christians everywhere, from Atlanta to Abuja¬-Sydney to Singapore, would be well-served if they considered this subject and these suggestions.

When speaking to a reporter or audience that you are unfamiliar with:

1.       Determine the type of interview/comments being sought – is the reporter from a newspaper, television station, internet blog, magazine? Are they likely to be friendly or unfriendly to you? How likely are they to be fair in their reporting? Where and when will the final product be broadcasted/published and to whom?

2.       Maintain good media relations-be cordial with journalists (that doesn’t mean that you should say what you think they want you to say).

3.       Know who you are – Before you speak, remind yourself that you represent Christ and are called to shine His light in the world.

4.       Know your message and stay on it – All reporters have limits placed on them. Videos can only be so long, stories can have only so many words etc. By focusing on your message for that interview and not drifting to other topics you increase your chances of getting your message across.

5.       Be assertive and convicted without being aggressive.

6.       Always be honest.

7.       Be concise.

Robert's suggestions are excellent. Here are a few more thoughts from me. Sadly, except for "house media" (your own newsletter or a friendly Christian publication), you should approach any interview with the recognition that there is likely to be negative "spin." 

checklist

1. Be prepared!  The time to start thinking is now, not the moment a microphone is shoved in front of your face. What would you say if you were the person on hand at a tragedy or disaster? The context may change, but you can prepare what you would say. 

2. Be concise. Speaking in short "sound bites" helps the person writing or recording, but can also be a reflection of your heart. 

3. Be Christian! This refers not only to your demeanor, but also to your content. How do the events you are commenting on relate to the Good News of God in Jesus Christ? Archbishop Greg Venables is absolutely the best about this of anyone I have ever seen. Whether it is on BBC or at a synod, he talks about the Gospel.  Can you present the Gospel in twenty seconds? How about your testimony of coming to faith? Could you share that in sixty seconds? You probably won't have as long as you would like to have to share, but you might have the opportunity to impact the world in a positive way. 

Alexander Haig, an influential politician, destroyed his career with one thoughtless comment when President Reagan was shot. He said, "As of now, I am in charge at the White House." He was chief of staff at the White House, but he was not the Constitutional leader in a crisis or in succession. News broadcasters starved for information focused on his gaffe all day because they had nothing else to report. His career would have developed entirely differently if he had prepared something to say in an emergency. Suppose he had said, "The President has just been wounded in a shooting, but this is a great country. Our Constitution provides for permanency and transition if that is needed. Pray for the President, and take heart that you can have confidence in America." 

Is there a fire or an earthquake? Is there a tragedy, a crisis, a shooting? I'm ready. Here is something I might say:

"This is a terrible situation, but we are a people of hope. The same power that raised Jesus Christ from death is available to touch and transform our lives today. Jesus is altogether good and altogether loving. He is worthy of our trust even in the midst of this." (Whatever "this" happens to be...)