If reporters want to get their telephone calls returned promptly, all they have to do is ring a branch of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. Journalists may not get the information that they're seeking or the full cooperation that they need -- especially if they are working on a story linked to doctrine, the faith's many critics or accusations by ex-Mormons -- but that call is going to get returned. While many religious leaders try to look the other way, when it comes to basic media relations, the Mormons plunge right in with a remarkable amount of energy and professionalism.
You can sense all of this in the Deseret News coverage of a recent speech out West by Boston Globe religion-beat pro Michael Paulson, during the "Mormonism in the Public Mind," program in the annual Mormon Studies Conference at Utah Valley University. He told the audience that Mormons are the quickest believers in town, when it comes to responding to press coverage. This is especially interesting, since Paulson is convinced that Mormons and Muslims are the most concerned believers, these days, with how they are portrayed in the mainstream press.
"We're having a bit of a Mormon moment in culture these days," he said, referring especially to the construction of the Boston Temple, Proposition 8, HBO's "Big Love" series and Mitt Romney's bid for the U.S. presidency.
He said it's clear many church members are concerned about press coverage of their faith, and besides unusually quick responses to what he writes about the LDS Church, he said he does receive positive e-mails, too. ...
"Mormons are nicer when dealing with reporters," Paulson said, explaining he's never been sworn at or hung up on by a church member. He also said, "Mormons have incredible internal communication."
Leaders of other faith groups should notice the simplicity of what Paulson said.
This isn't rocket science.
Return telephone calls and emails. Praise the good (yes, from the church's perspective) as well as criticize the bad. Be polite. I'll add another tip: volunteer information and contacts with information sources -- positive and even negative -- that the church respects. Oh, and post tons and tons of background information on your websites, including verbatim speeches and chats with hard-to-reach church leaders.
Information really matters, which is the lesson that Rod "friend of this blog" Dreher took away from this short article, in a commentary over at his Beliefnet.com blog. There's good, good advice in this post, some of which echoes opinions that I voiced eons ago in The Quill magazine.
Chew on this from Rod:
I will say from my own experience that the best rule of thumb for religious folks re: the media is never attribute to malice what can be attributed to ignorance. That is, it is really difficult to underestimate how little your average MSM journalist knows about religion (I except professional God-beat scribes, obviously). Most examples of bias and bad reporting I've seen can be chalked up to not knowing any better.
Whatever your religion, you'd be smart to build a relationship with your local religion beat reporters, or reporters who write about things that are important to you and members of your faith, or your church/synagogue/mosque/whatever. Don't assume hostility on the part of the reporter. It's probably not there. Honestly. We often simply don't know what we don't know, and are eager to learn. But putting a journalist immediately on the defensive is no way to get more fair coverage. Neither is assuming that any coverage critical of your religion is automatically the result of bias.
Good advice for all. Amen.