What would you do if you were the pastor of an ordinary evangelical church and a member of your flock suddenly became the most controversial person on this planet? That is what happened to the Rev. Larry Kroon of Wasilla Bible Church when Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska became the GOP nominee to be vice president. To say that all heckfire broke loose would be an understatement. Kroon's church was, quite literally, invaded by reporters from sea to shining sea and from, literally, all corners of the world.
The professionals showed up, of course. That would be the journalists who are experts at covering politics. After the first stage of hurricane Palin, Kroon realized that many or most of the reporters who were camped out on his church lawn had little or no interest in religion, his church or even the role that faith had played in Palin's life and career. Many didn't get it and they didn't want to.
But, later, he came to realize that many of the reporters he was dealing with were interested in the facts of the story, they did care about accuracy, they wanted to "get religion," if religion was truly a central part of the story. And -- duh -- religion was a pretty important factor in what was happening at Wasilla Bible Church. It helped to understand the language. It helped if a reporter didn't view Kroon and his flock through a strictly partisan, political lens.
After the madness ended, Kroon sat down with a friend of mine -- James Stamoolis, who is an educator and writer -- and tried to process what he had learned about the news media. The goal was to create a set of tips for clergy, tips on how to work with the press if you want to do so, or have to do so.
I wish I could link to that document, because I think religion-beat professionals would find it interesting. However, it's not online anywhere (yet). The key to the document is that Kroon came away with a profound respect for many of the journalists he met, while being highly critical of others. The key is trying to separate the journalists from the advocacy journalists, the pros who want information and the pros (or hacks) who want a soundbite that fits the story that is already written inside their heads.
With Palin's "Going Rogue" memoir hitting the streets, I contacted Stamoolis and then reached Kroon. I'll post a link to the Scripps Howard News Service column that resulted from that, as soon as one is available. But here are a few tips for religious leaders, drawn from Kroon's experience (and a bonus point that came out of our discussions):
* Never accept an interview without confirming a reporter's identity and his or her current employer. Just because someone has written for the Associated Press doesn't mean that he isn't currently a blogger for PalinIsAWitch.org or something like that.
* Help reporters understand that private communications between clergy and the faithful are, in fact, privileged and guarded by the same kinds of laws that shield reporters and their sources.
* Keep contact information for community leaders -- such as telephone numbers and email addresses for church elders -- in a firewall-protected section of your congregation's website. Post contact information for staffers who are prepared to handle media requests in a timely manner.
* Ask if reporters or producers have experience covering religion news. Some journalists sincerely want factual information that will help them cover a story fairly and accurately, while others "are in a hurry and they simply want what they want. You may think you're helping them understand who you are and what you believe, but they just want a good quote and then they're moving on," said Kroon.
* It may help to post information about your denomination or tradition, including frequently asked questions about worship, media relations, how the congregation is governed and the meaning of unique terms (such as "born again" or "charismatic") that newcomers will encounter.
* Understand that a two-hour interview may be reduced to 20 seconds and that the journalist decides what goes in that soundbite. So avoid lectures and focus on the key points that you need to make to explain your congregation's point of view. It's also important to remember that silence is the reporter's problem, not your problem.
And, finally, here is one more tip that grew out of our discussions. Long-time GetReligion readers will recognize this, I think.
* In the Internet age, there is no reason that a pastor cannot -- as a condition for talking to a reporter -- insist on the right to record and transcribe an interview. That way, the professionals on sides of the transaction know that they are on the record and the results, if needed to clarify a point, can be posted online or emailed to a publisher.
Once again, let me stress that Kroon truly came to see the difference between tough, honest, but informed reporters and those who were simply bashing away, trying to work an agenda.
When you see the whole Scripps column, you'll see some of his quotes about that. In other words, Kroon decided that he is pro-journalism. He is pro-journalist. However, he is also profoundly aware that there are good journalists and there are very bad journalists and people who get caught in these kinds of media storms have to be careful, while they figure out who is who.