Why ignoring a reporter's call probably isn't the best media relations strategy for a religious leader

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Last week, I critiqued the New York Times' front-page coverage of the "Church vs. Church" immigration debate in an Iowa town.

In that post, I lamented that the pastors of three leading evangelical churches in that community "declined repeated requests over several weeks seeking comment," according to the Times.

Without a strong religious voice supportive of President Donald Trump's immigration policies, the story ended up feeling slanted and incomplete, I noted. But I stressed that the Times couldn't be blamed, given that it made a strong attempt to talk to the pastors.

Shockingly enough, not everybody agreed with my take.

Reader Edward Dougherty replied with this comment:

Mr. Ross
It boggles this Catholic’s mind that you are surprised that any of these pastors would talk to the reporter.
This blog has existed on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion. The hero of these pastors, President Trump, paints the press as the enemy rather than a guardian of the people’s right to know. And then you are surprised when that actually manifests itself in the real world.

My response: I'm not necessarily surprised they didn't talk. But I don't think silence is the best approach when contacted by a reporter. Perhaps this is my own bias talking (I am a journalist, after all), but refusing to talk gives the impression, in my humble opinion, that the person contacted has something to hide.

In this case, I would have recommended that the pastors Google the writer's past articles and see if he seemed to be a fact-oriented journalist attempting to fairly reflect all sides. If he did, I would have suggested that they agree to an interview and do their best to explain their position. As I mentioned in my previous post, "When people won't talk to a reporter, the reporter can't report what they believe."

As for the idea that this blog exists "on the premise that the media, by and large, are hostile to any kind of religion," I'd quibble with that, too. I believe we maintain that journalists often can be tone-deaf to religion and ignorant of it. But hostility? That is a problem in some cases, but not the biggest one we see. My colleagues, including editor Terry Mattingly, can reply with their own thoughts if they'd like.

As for the notion that Trump is these pastors' hero, I know very few evangelical leaders who would describe the brash, billionaire businessman as such. The reason Trump won the support of 81 percent of evangelicals is much more complicated than that, as we have pointed out repeatedly here at GetReligion.

A reader self-identified as "Reformed Catholic" offered this additional response to Dougherty:

Mr. Dougherty,
you're assuming that these pastors hold up the President as their 'hero', rather than assuming that they really don't want to get involved in the politics of the situation, or have the media attention.

Finally, David Van Biema — a former chief religion writer at Time — commented with this interesting take. He was typing quickly, I am sure, so please forgive a few typos:

I remember being dismayed when I read the story at the unwillingness of most of the evangelical pastors in town to talk to the reporter. Perhaps the Times could have quoted the one who did at greater length; but when you're reduced to talking to a church's janitor because its pastor couldn't make the time, something has gone wrong. My tendency is not to blame the reporter, since Trip Gabriel has plenty of experience talking to people who don't share "mainstream media"'s position. I can see see reluctance on the part of religious conservatives to talk to people who they feel won't report their story straight. But I think that mainstream reporters are becoming increasingly more sensitive. Simultaneously, yesterday's Supreme Court nomination I think that conservatives self-image as victims at the mercy of a hostile press will need to change. Starting very soon they are going to need to recognize that they actually have the political upper hand, and with that position of power should come a willingness to explain yourself to the minority who don't yet get it. True, nobody outside your denomination is ever going to get the complexities of doctrine right, but let's be honest, the never stopped 2000 years of evangelists from proclaiming them.

Your turn, dear GetReligion readers: Would you answer a call from a Times reporter? Also, if you have granted an interview with a reporter on a controversial subject, were you pleased or not on how your comments were used in the published article? By all means, please comment below or tweet us at @GetReligion.

 

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