Denver Archbishop Charles J. Chaput addressed the Religion Newswriters Association conference in Denver yesterday where he both inspired and challenged. Religion reporters, he said, are not normal. "They are amphibians who live in two worlds and can honor both."
"Acknowledge your mistakes and don't make them a habit," Chaput said. "Understand believers and their institutions as they understand themselves. If you do that and do it with integrity, fairness and humility, you'll have the gratitude of the people you cover and you'll embody the best ideals of your profession."
During the question and answer period, Laurie Goodstein of the New York Times asked him why he didn't return her phone call when Archbishop Jose Gomez was chosen as Los Angeles archbishop. Chaput said that Times reporter David Kirkpatrick misquoted him during John Kerry's presidential campaign, and he said that he has recordings to prove it. "It's The New York Times' editorial policy that I'm interpreting," Chaput said. "I made a judgment based on experience."
Goodstein said she did not know Chaput was boycotting the Times. He challenged Goodstein's more recent coverage of the Catholic Church. "You treated Pope Benedict badly in the latest series about him," he said.
Cathy Grossman of USA Today challenged him, asking if a boycott over one reporter was fair. "We don't boycott everyone, just the New York Times," he said.
In contrast, he praised Associated Press reporter Eric Gorski's coverage of the Catholic Church, even during the Catholic Church abuse stories. Chaput also gave a generous shout out to GetReligion, acknowledging our attempts to analyze, critique and praise religion coverage in the mainstream media.
Some of the criticism from reporters after the meeting was that they wanted Chaput to give more evidence for his critiques. It was both awkward and fascinating. (More coverage is at the Denver Post, the Huffington Post, and Catholic News Agency)
On one hand, Chaput is under no obligation to call anyone back since he is not a spokesman. Reporters should not expect religious leaders to be at their beck and call, responding to every hot issue of the day. Instead, they should go out of their way to develop relationships with religious leaders, making sure their voices are heard clearly and precisely. Many religion reporters we read do go to great pains to develop these relationships.
Also, if Chaput felt that he was misquoted, it's understandable why he would want to avoid speaking with the outlet. People who have been misquoted or misrepresented can feel helpless and might want to shut out the media or a particular outlet.
But if Chaput believes in the power of the press, hopefully he can separate his frustration from one particular story away from the New York Times as a whole. If someone has one bad experience with a priest, are all the priests in that diocese bad?
It's unclear whether Chaput attempted to speak with the reporter at the Times, and whether he attempted to speak with an editor or an ombudsman about making a correction.
What religious leaders should generally understand is that religion reporters are working their tails off, they get paid dirt, and their beat gets less priority than others. While their peers analyze data through election polls, crime reports and shifts in Wall Street, religion reporters cover a complex beat of different traditions, rituals and theologies. Many religion reporters are charging uphill in their own newsrooms, where the religion beat gets a hard look during budget cuts and where they get few inches to explain nuanced ideas.
Generally, GetReligion supports religion reporters over other reporters because, well, you want a religion reporter to cover the latest development in the Catholic Church than your average crime reporter. With all due respect to my political reporter friends, many political reporters (think Politico) cover religion only in the context of election cycles. You might get a play-by-play update with little theological or historical context, and the implications only matter if they could change the outcome of an election.
Religion reporters will try to put a story in the context of what it means for the particular religious body. Most of them understand the nuances of the faith and structure and recognize sacred texts and inside phrases that religious groups use.
If religious leaders want to understand the media better, they could visit a newsroom to better understand how the process of news production happens. There they can see the difference between the editorial desk and the newsroom, find out how story ideas are produced and executed.
Feedback matters. Reporters have to have a tough skin if they want to be in the business. But even the anonymous comment can feel like a punch to the gut. A few weeks ago, I received a very kind note from a pastor who said he thought I was well-prepared and thoughtful during our interview. I'll treat the pastor with the same fairness and respect as anyone else, but he is on my list of people to talk to again.
Religious leaders tend to be skeptical of the media. Frank Page (a former Southern Baptist Convention president) told religion reporters last year that he felt like Daniel coming to the lion's den. On one hand, reporters go to great pains to explain Rainn Wilson's Baha'i faith (we heard from him via Skype); Would Rick Warren get the same treatment? Probably not. Of course, journalists should cover minority faiths, but they should employ the same kind of respect and fairness in their coverage.
Hopefully he and Goodstein can work something out. He appeared somewhat defensive in his critique, but he said would be open to a discussion. Goodstein asked Chaput if he would continue to boycott the Times. "I don't know," Chaput said. "Maybe you'll convince me I shouldn't do that." Goodstein said, "I'll try."
Chaput is an important voice; The New York Times is an important publication; They should mend that relationship so important voices can be heard in important places.