Media no longer abstains from religious discussion
Written by Sherri Deatherage Green
Published in PRWeek, Nov. 17, 2003
Recent scandals and social changes have prompted heightened media scrutiny of religious institutions. As Sherri Deatherage Green discovers, top representatives of many denominations are answering the increased attention by engaging the press much more openly.
Ministers preparing for upcoming Thanksgiving services may quietly give thanks for anonymity at a time when fellow clergy members seem to make headlines every day.
Yet the spate of recent news stories dealing with religious issues – such as the Catholic Church’s pedophilia scandal, the controversial decision of the U.S. Episcopal Church to appoint an openly gay bishop, and Muslim Americans’ continued attempt for appreciation of their religion at a time when Islam remains closely associated with terrorist threats against the U.S. – is sure to have a lasting effect on how the media now reports on all things religious. Some see this recent coverage, beginning with the Catholic sex scandal, as the end of an era. The end of sacred cows.
“The Catholic Church scandal has opened things up for discussions that have in the past seemed unassailable,” said Dan Cohen, principal of Full Court Press in Oakland, Calif. Cohen volunteered to help with crisis communication when someone tried to burn down his synagogue.
The Catholic Church symbolizes the secrecy (or at least the standoffishness) that has marked many religions’ attitudes toward the press, and now it also represents the openness that many seek. The National Review Board, a lay commission appointed by the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops to advise its Office of Child and Youth Protection, will release two research studies in February at the National Press Club. One will report statistics on sexual abuse among Catholic clergy since the 1950s, and the other will analyze causes and context, said Bill Burleigh, a review board member and chairman of E.W. Scripps.
Some observers also think blurring lines between church and state may be heightening media and public interest in religion. President Bush’s faith-based initiatives would shift federal funding to church-sponsored programs, and other examples of religious issues in the political and judicial realms pop up regularly.
“Before these kinds of issues became so prominent, if you wanted to ignore religions, you could just tune out the TV stories that were done on them,” said Craig McDaniel, VP and management supervisor at Michael A. Burns & Associates in Dallas. “It’s hard to ignore the effect on anyone’s daily life any more.”
Cultural changes push religion to the forefront
Societal changes also may be pushing religion to the front page.
“I think the media is rightly sensing that there is a shift in American culture about this issue, and we are the first denomination to deal with it head on,” said Rev. Daniel England, director of communications for the Episcopal Church. England’s comments came a week after Rev. Gene Robinson was consecrated as the world’s first openly gay bishop.
England doesn’t view the situation as a crisis. “People may disagree about the particular issue of the place of gay and lesbian people in the church, but the church is big enough to accommodate all of those opinions,” he explained.
At the other end of the protestant theological spectrum, the often-outspoken Southern Baptists agree society is changing.
“The culture is treading down that path of accepting homosexual behavior,” said John Revell, a spokesman for the Southern Baptist Convention. “Whenever a culture becomes increasingly distanced from the biblical standard and a group holds to the biblical standard, they are going to stand out.”
Representatives of various faiths also concede that adding religion to any scandalous story gives it extra sizzle. “When an individual in the church sins, you not only have a sin and a crime, you have hypocrisy, and that certainly evokes very strong media interest,” says Sister Mary Ann Walsh, deputy media relations director for the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
Unfortunately, many religious organizations don’t have the resources to respond effectively.
“I think for a long time, we’ve had a shortage of spokespeople who can address issues in a way that is acceptable to the media and larger society,” said Ibrahim Hooper, communications director for the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR).
Theology’s intellectual nature also poses challenges. Preachers build sermons toward logical conclusions, but that approach doesn’t always work with impatient reporters.
Former Oklahoma governor Frank Keating, the former chairman of the Catholic’s review board, was known for controversial sound bites that didn’t always sit well with internal audiences, Burleigh notes. “I think journalism has a peculiar vocabulary, and the transcendent nature of religion and theology does not translate well into that vocabulary,” he said.
Fear and mistrust on both sides often hinder church-press relationships. A summer survey by the Pew Research Center showed that 34 percent of respondents ranked the media as unfriendly toward religion, while only 16 percent felt it was friendly.
“In general, I think conservatives are distrustful of the media and would prefer not to deal with them at all,” said Rev. Chris Underation, media relations manager for an evangelical Christian school in New Hampshire. “They believe that the media caricatures and ridicules their views. As a result, they aren’t really forthcoming with information.” Underation recalls a seminary professor instructing him to say “No comment” when reporters called.
Such reticence can feed a cycle in which inadequate information breeds inaccurate coverage, while nuance and sensitivities often cause reporters to avoid religion like a hot potato.
“You might say the Eucharist
represents the body and blood of Christ. To a Catholic, the Eucharist is the
body and blood of Christ. Big difference,” Walsh said. “When you offend people
in something religious, they get very upset.”
More general-news coverage
Despite what seems like a jump in coverage of religion-related news, religious communicators report increasing coverage by general assignment reporters. The Religion Newswriters Association reported in September that when its president, Jeff Sheler, lost his job at US News and World Report, Time became the only remaining weekly news magazine with a full-time religion writer.
Those with complex messages to communicate once turned to the print media, but Larry Brumley, associate VP for external relations at Baylor University, laments that increased competition pushes print toward more immediacy and less depth. “It just feels like there are more crises because there are more channels to distribute information,” Brumley said, adding that mainstream media are more likely to pick up a story when a niche outlet has reported it.
At Cathedral of Hope, a huge liberal and predominantly gay and lesbian church in Dallas, a few disgruntled members alleged financial improprieties and mounted an aggressive media relations campaign. The gay press first covered the dispute, which spilled over into the mainstream media.
Cathedral of Hope took a few hits in the press, but PR manager Kris Martin believes strong existing media relationships helped mitigate damage. The church has long provided photo ops for community services projects, like the upcoming distribution of Thanksgiving baskets. “We knew we could change the way the world felt about gay people by just doing service,” Martin said.
Ministers also have been positioned as national media sources on pertinent issues, but the crisis forced the church to focus more on its internal audience. Hundreds of members attended congregational forums and board meetings, Martin said.
Other religious organizations have made great PR strides in recent years as well. For example, United Methodist Communications formed in 1998 to support spokespeople throughout the denomination. Its website includes a crisis communication guide. Both the Conference of Catholic Bishops and CAIR offer media training, and a few denominations have begun brand advertising.
“It’s no mystery that younger people are very brand-conscious,” England said. “I suspect that many of the denominations have recognized that, and they see the need to have their brand and message out there.” He believes consecration of the gay bishop drives home his denomination's brand message: “The Episcopal church welcomes you.”
Communicators trying to nudge their churches toward media relations can use evangelical directives to their favor.
Evangelist Billy Graham recognizes the advantage of having conversations, not confrontations, with the press, says A. Larry Ross, whose eponymous Dallas agency has represented Graham’s ministry for decades. “He has enjoyed a good relationship with the media because he has had a policy of engagement,” Ross said.
But some religious leaders aren’t as subtle about conveying their theological positions to a secular world, and they look to a higher power to guide communications.
Bill Merrill, the Southern Baptist Convention’s VP for convention relations, suffered a stroke several weeks ago. He’s the only person experienced in handling media crises for the denomination, but its leaders haven’t yet considered replacing him. “We are praying for his full recovery,” Revell said. “The future is in God’s hands.”
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