Rights and wrongs of covering rites

church candlesSorry to keep promoting our own work so much this week, but, hey, we are all on the move from place to place and I think that the topic addressed in my latest column for our friends in the diversity and ethics department at Poynter.org will be of interest to GetReligion readers. This grew out of discussions, on this blog, of the press memos that shaped coverage of the recent votes at the Northern Virginia parishes that decided to exit the U.S. Episcopal Church in order to affirm their ties to traditional Anglicans in the Third World and elsewhere.

The more I thought about it, the more I became interested in the topic of the rights and wrongs of press coverage of worship rites.

That led to a reflection on that topic for Poynter that began with this personal anecdote from the other side of the reporter's notebook:

Something happened early in my religion-beat career that changed my view of the freedom most journalists enjoy when covering worship services.

It was the early 1980s and the death penalty was in the news in North Carolina. I was working at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, but wasn't covering that story.

The parish I attended, however, was holding a vigil on the night of a major execution and, as a person who opposes the "culture of death" in all its forms, I decided to attend the service. What I failed to realize was the journalistic importance of our church being visually beautiful and close to the downtown media.

Our small flock gathered late that night to say prayers in the darkened sanctuary, which was lit by a few candles near the altar.

Then we were invaded.

As our priest tried to lead us in a hushed litany, a television crew entered. I confess that I stopped my prayers long enough to study the lighting rig mounted on the cameraman's shoulders. It turned him into an alien-like creature as he clanked down the center aisle. He proceeded right past the pulpit and, before reaching the altar, turned to shoot from behind the priest. His lights almost blinded the people kneeling in the front rows.

I remember thinking: How ironic. Here I am offering prayers against the death penalty and I want to kill that guy.

Would members of our church, if asked in advance, have approved what these journalists did? No way. Would we have been willing to discuss some way they could have covered our service without turning it into an ordeal for worshippers? Of course.

Could journalists have sat, silently, listening to the prayers and perhaps recording them for audio that could have been mixed with images filmed later? Could some video have been taken without lights? The bottom line: Was there a way to cover the news contained in this worship service without leaving the participants convinced that the journalists didn't care about the negative impact that they had on the service itself?

I would be interested in reactions from working journalists to this little essay. Also, you could -- please do -- let the folks at Poynter know what you think. Can anyone else share another "alien invasion" story similar to this one?

Oh, and I changed one word in the Poynter essay when I posted this slice of text. Can anyone spot it? Also, why do you think the editor wanted to change it?

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