Rights and wrongs of covering rites

church candlesSorry to keep promoting our own work so much this week, but, hey, we are all on the move from place to place and I think that the topic addressed in my latest column for our friends in the diversity and ethics department at Poynter.org will be of interest to GetReligion readers.

This grew out of discussions, on this blog, of the press memos that shaped coverage of the recent votes at the Northern Virginia parishes that decided to exit the U.S. Episcopal Church in order to affirm their ties to traditional Anglicans in the Third World and elsewhere.

The more I thought about it, the more I became interested in the topic of the rights and wrongs of press coverage of worship rites.

That led to a reflection on that topic for Poynter that began with this personal anecdote from the other side of the reporter’s notebook:

Something happened early in my religion-beat career that changed my view of the freedom most journalists enjoy when covering worship services.

It was the early 1980s and the death penalty was in the news in North Carolina. I was working at The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer, but wasn’t covering that story.

The parish I attended, however, was holding a vigil on the night of a major execution and, as a person who opposes the “culture of death” in all its forms, I decided to attend the service. What I failed to realize was the journalistic importance of our church being visually beautiful and close to the downtown media.

Our small flock gathered late that night to say prayers in the darkened sanctuary, which was lit by a few candles near the altar.

Then we were invaded.

As our priest tried to lead us in a hushed litany, a television crew entered. I confess that I stopped my prayers long enough to study the lighting rig mounted on the cameraman’s shoulders. It turned him into an alien-like creature as he clanked down the center aisle. He proceeded right past the pulpit and, before reaching the altar, turned to shoot from behind the priest. His lights almost blinded the people kneeling in the front rows.

I remember thinking: How ironic. Here I am offering prayers against the death penalty and I want to kill that guy.

Would members of our church, if asked in advance, have approved what these journalists did? No way. Would we have been willing to discuss some way they could have covered our service without turning it into an ordeal for worshippers? Of course.

Could journalists have sat, silently, listening to the prayers and perhaps recording them for audio that could have been mixed with images filmed later? Could some video have been taken without lights? The bottom line: Was there a way to cover the news contained in this worship service without leaving the participants convinced that the journalists didn’t care about the negative impact that they had on the service itself?

I would be interested in reactions from working journalists to this little essay. Also, you could — please do — let the folks at Poynter know what you think. Can anyone else share another “alien invasion” story similar to this one?

Oh, and I changed one word in the Poynter essay when I posted this slice of text. Can anyone spot it? Also, why do you think the editor wanted to change it?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Alien invasions can be good or bad, I guess. Years ago I was the deacon of a Catholic parish which made the horrendous mistake of hiring a youth co-ordinator who turned out to be into sexual child abuse (he had been hired by the Church on the high words of praise people in the town had for him–but the Church got 100% of the blame.) Parishoners in the small town church did everything possible to deflect, turn away, block the invasion of the Boston big city media aliens who descended on us like locusts
    and made the story a nation-wide one.
    But, just recently, the archdiocese of Boston wanted to close a small Italian parish where I had just been transferred to as deacon (Oh! what luck seems to follow me) But we all got together in the parish and with the calm, respectful leadership of our pastor we came up with a strategy TO GET THOSE ALIENS to come to our parish (we built a glass and wooden prayer room in the middle of the parking lot and manned it for 24 hours a day for a week–it was perfectly tailored for media-TV coverage.
    We sent word out and the two big metro Boston papers gave us big coverage, most of the 5 local TV stations that do local news covered us and CBS picked up on it from their local affiliate and sent a crew to do an Evening News Report.—-We are still open (one of the few ethnic parishes listed for possible closure which survived.)
    So ALIEN INVASIONS can be fought or sought–depending.

  • D. Burns

    In my former life I was a TV news photog in a small west Texas city. I’ve spent many evenings attempting to “film” candle light services at local churchs and vigils. I can tell you from experience it was nearly imposible, with the cameras at the time, NOT to use some lights. I knew it would spoil the mood for the participants, but to have an image to record at all, I had to turn on my 600wt colortran blunderbust (lamp).

    Nowadays the cameras are much more light sensetive and lights are smaller and less obtrusive. However, you can still find yourself blinding people who are trying to meditate in a darkend space.

    I belive TV journalist (re: photogs) are the absolute worse offenders to quiet moments and services. Unfortunatly, without the video, it’s just radio. No matter how much you want to be respectfull to the service (ie. invisable and unobtrusive), it’s just not possible. The camera will invade the space its in. There’s no way around it.

  • Emily


    I would imagine the editor changed it because he/she thought that readers might assume it was a Catholic parish. (Given that you are Eastern Orthodox, I assume that wasn’t the case.) The word seems to have become applied only to Catholic congregations — which is silly, really, because other Christian groups refers to their local congregations as parishes, too.

    Either that, or the editor assumed that the readers weren’t intelligent enough to understand that you meant parish in the sense of a local church, not in the sense of a political subdivision.

  • Charlie

    Right, your comfort so much more important than the message, right?

  • http://janvbear.blogspot.com Jan Bear

    Charlie –

    Depends on whom you think the message is to, I suppose. If it’s just a media event, then having the cameras there will help you get your message to its intended recipients. If it’s a prayer service, then the Recipient doesn’t need to watch it on TV, and the people who are participating in the prayer service want to be able to participate fully in the conversation, which includes listening, preferably with a certain amount of composure.

    I dislike the whole self-consciousness a camera brings to a proceeding and don’t even like them at weddings (which makes me a sort of Luddite curmudgeon, but there it is).

  • James Fulford

    I would imagine the editor changed it because he/she thought that readers might assume it was a Catholic parish.

    I think he changed it because he thought x number of readers wouldn’t know what “parish” meant.

    However, he might also have said that church is the correct word, in terms of diction, since while “parish” may mean “community” to religious people, in common English usage it refers a geographical area served by a particular church.

  • http://www.tragic-christian.org Tragic Christian

    I used to attend All Saints Episcopal Church in Pasadena, CA and a couple of times was “invaded” by Jesse Jackson, with photographers in tow. He was never planned ahead of time, he just kinda showed up. Since he never showed up on time, the ministers (who must’ve known he was coming) vamped for awhile until he arrived, and then everything stopped dead while he pontificated to the TV lights. If you came to worship, you were SOL — but if you wanted to get a TV light tan, that was the place to be. The last few times I heard Jesse was going to speak of a Sunday, I just turned around and left.

  • http://www.southern-orthodoxy.blogspot.com Fr Joseph Huneycutt

    Just me? Maybe. But by changing “church” to “parish” the piece places the emphasis on the topic at hand as opposed to focussing on that individual worshipping community in particular.

    “The church I attended …” Oh? What church?

    “The parish I attended …” Yes. Keep going …

  • http://blidiot.blogspot.com/ Raider51

    You wrote:

    As our priest tried to lead us in a hushed litany, a television crew entered. . . . the cameraman[] . . . clanked down the center aisle. He proceeded right past the pulpit and, before reaching the altar, turned to shoot from behind the priest. His lights almost blinded the people kneeling in the front rows.

    I was raised Roman Catholic and was an altar boy and this is really shocking.

    To transpose this into a secular scene, think of a camera man walking into a courtroom and going behind a judge during a proceeding.

    An additional thought — it seems to me there is a vast difference in the forms of media and their intrusiveness. The print media allows a reporter to unobtrusively observe, whereas the electronic/visual media has required the equipment, including lights, you mentioned which does impede upon what is being observed.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    Is this, perhaps, a manifestation of the MSM’s lack of respect for religion and worshipers?

  • http://www.geocities.com/frgregacca/stfel.html Fr. Greg

    As a radio reporter, I covered the funeral of RC Bishop Leo Unterkoeffler in Charleston SC in the early nineties. By prior arrangement, I recorded the liturgy by tapping into the cathedral’s sound system. Got some great sound, including Cardinal Joseph Bernardin’s eulogy/homily. I witnessed the whole event from the choir loft. There WERE TV cameras there, but in the side aisles, and only for a brief period of time, near the beginning of Mass, as I recall. There were no lights (it was during the day), and the camera people entered and left quite unobtrusively.

    With some advance discussion, I think the situation about which Terry writes could have been handled very differently and to the satisfaction of both worshippers and television people.

    And I have no idea why the editor wanted “parish” changed to “church”.

  • http://rub-a-dub.blogspot.com Mattk

    As someone who has only this month changed parishes but who has remained in the same church, allow me to assert that the two words do not mean the same thing. The editor erred.

  • Tisco

    Interestingly, my impression of changing “parish” to “church” is the opposite of Fr. Joseph’s. Coming from an evangelical background, I see “church” as a neutral word that allows the reader to focus on the point of the article, while “parish” proclaims that the author is speaking of a Catholic, Episcopal, or Orthodox tradition. Tmatt wrote recently that a religion reporter should avoid advertising his particular religious tradition, to avoid having the reader/interviewee think either “Ah, he’s one of us” or “Ah, he’s one of those other people.” So it seems to me that the change to “church” was a good one.

  • Carl Vehse

    God gave us ushers (and tasers) to take care of such clymer invasions in worship services.

  • John

    While we’ve never had a camera crew clank down our isle during a service we did have EMT’s come clanking down the isle during the Great Entrance. Someone briefly fainted and someone else, we’ve never found out who the culprit was, thinking they were dead or something called for an ambulance. We just turned around and went back to the front of the church for the rest of the Entrance while the EMT’s took the poor man, against his will, out on a stretcher to make sure he was okay. He was. It was somewhat amusing later on.