This week's "Crossroads" podcast -- recorded by telephone, with me here in Prague -- is extra long and should be of special interest to clergy and other religious leaders who have ever found themselves facing a journalist who is holding a pen and a notepad (or calling on the telephone).
Now, I am not saying that journalists will not be interested in this topic.
You see, this podcast is yet another response to that urgent question raised by my colleague Bobby Ross, Jr., about how pastors should or should not respond when contacted by the press. Click here to catch up on that thread.
What do reporters think when clergy refuse to talk? Do journalists understand why so many clergy are afraid of the press?
Yes, this fear does have something to do with clergy fearing that many journalists "just don't get religion." Clergy fear mistakes. They fear reporters yanking their words out of context. Hold that thought.
In this podcast, host Todd Wilken (a radio pro and a Missouri Synod Lutheran pastor, at the same time) and I talked about two very specific scenarios, when it comes to a reporter requesting an interview with a pastor.
Number 1: You are a minister and you return to your office and there is a message waiting for you. A journalist has called requesting an interview. The note does not include information about the subject of the story (something journalist should share right up front, in my opinion).
Do you return the call?
Well, in this case let's say that the minister KNOWS what the story is about and knows that it's about a problem that has emerged in this church, religious school, etc. Let's say a student has been disciplined and a circle of parents is mad. It's safe to assume that the parents called the newspaper or local television station.
In other words, this is a BAD news story, from the point of view of most pastors. Should ministers return these calls?
Question: Will refusing to return the call make the story go away?
The bottom line: The silent approach earns you a "Pastor So and So declined to be interviewed" reference and the story will not include your institution's defense of its actions (other than a version of the events described by the parents). What to do? Listen to the podcast.
Number 2: In this case, the pastor has no idea what the call is about. In other words, this is just as likely to be a GOOD news story as something tricky or negative. In this case, the pastor may have a chance to speak out on some issue that is crucial to the church or, at the very least, interesting or even quite important.
What to do? Call the reporter back and say, "What's up?" You can then make a decision about whether you have something to contribute.
But here is a crucial question about realities on the journalist side of that notebook. Are you dealing with a religion-beat pro or is it likely that the journalist who is calling you is a general-assignment reporter (or, worse, a political specialist) who may know little or nothing about religious language, history, doctrine, etc.?
This is where it really helps if pastors have a small circle of laypeople who pay close attention -- positive and negative -- to what happens in local media. This is where it helps to have FAQ documents ready about your church, your school, your ministry, etc. We are not talking about public relations, here. We are talking about clear statements of important information. You should also offer the reporter contacts, pointing them to quality sources linked to the topic. Be helpful and positive.
Oh, and it is perfectly acceptable to ask the journalist these two questions: How long have you covered the religion beat? What did you do to prepare to cover religion news, in terms of training and studies? And do NOT ask the reporter where she or he goes to church. Why would that matter, if you are talking about journalism issues?
Enjoy the podcast. And be careful out there.