Media rules for Obama’s church

media IDThere is something unfortunate when a church creates limits on whether or not journalists can attend its religious services. How are journalists supposed to understand religion if they are limited or prohibited from attending what is generally considered the most important and frequent public event in that religious tradition’s week?

Fortunately, the recent media excitement hasn’t resulted in an all-out-media-ban at Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama’s Trinity United Church of Christ. Instead of some sort of draconian ban, the church has created some rules and requires reporters to register a few days in advance.

Here is The Chicago Tribune‘s Manya Brachear in a first person account of what the new rules mean and how she feels about them:

Recent media scrutiny of Trinity United Church of Christ, where Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama has worshiped for more than 20 years, has raised new questions about 1st Amendment rights, in some ways pitting freedom of the press against the freedom to practice religion.

Should reporters, like the rest of the public, have full and unfettered access to houses of worship? Or is there a time when churches should guard their gates to protect their flocks?

At a news conference Thursday, Trinity’s leaders laid down the law for reporters who want to cover the church in the future. Permission must be granted on Thursday for reporters to attend Sunday worship services. All media must check in, wear a badge at all times and refrain from interviewing members on church property.

Though journalists may carry a notepad, they may not send text on their BlackBerries nor use recording devices or cameras anywhere on the church campus. Audio and video recordings of the sermons are available for purchase immediately after the services at the church bookstores.

Brachear goes on to say that the new policies force her to send e-mails and make phone calls from the restroom in an effort not to “disrespect members during the worship experience” and make deadline.

Is this really a first amendment versus the journalists issue? If the church wanted to keep journalists from covering their worship services, would anything in the law stop them? The bigger question is whether these types of rules are intended to lower the church’s profile.

It would be interesting to compare these policies with other church’s policies on journalists. I am sure there are more than a few stories regarding media coverage of the Episcopal Church battles. Were there policies at Ted Haggard’s former church? How do they all compare and how did it effect the news coverage?

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  • http://bethaniqua.blogspot.com bethany

    I think these rules are an attempt to keep worship services just that: worship services and not publicity events. By forcing reporters to keep a low profile and refrain from interviewing members, it keeps the experience of church attendance focused on the community and on God instead of on their public image or the presence of a reporter. I think it’s smart.

  • http://www.wildhunt.org/blog.html Jason Pitzl-Waters

    Should reporters, like the rest of the public, have full and unfettered access to houses of worship?

    But “the rest of the public” doesn’t, in theory, have “unfettered” access to a house of worship. A religious group may decide to eject (or set limitations on) anyone entering onto their property for any number of reasons. A religious service isn’t the same thing as a public forum.

    The bigger question is whether these types of rules are intended to lower the church’s profile.

    At this point, it is more likely the policy was put in place for the benefit of the church-goers. The main story is already out, it is very doubtful the new pastor is going to get caught saying anything that would embarrass Obama, so I can’t see limiting journalistic access as lowering their profile per-say. Their profile is going to remain “high” so long as Obama remains in the presidential race. Maybe they are just sick of dealing with reporters in their church every Sunday asking questions about Wright, Obama, and race.

  • Asinus Gravis

    In some ways the “rules” laid down at Trinity sound like the “rules” in place at a lot of formal weddings. There, with a professional photographer hired to cover the event, they place a ban on all other picture taking during the ceremony, as well as other disruptive activity that would detract from the solemn occasion.

    I would be surprised if there are not already, in many states, laws on the books about disrupting religious services in churches, synagogues, temples, and mosques.

    Some religious temples have for many years explicitly excluded all non-members from their services. Other religious communities send not so subtle signals that those who are shabbily dressed and/or deoderant-challenged are not welcome in their services–that of course would never apply to journalists.

    Are we to understand that Brachear, except for these new rules, would be sending email and talking on a cell phone during religious services at Trinity, or at any other church? If so, that may well help to account for the out-of-touch features of the story.

  • Michael

    A reporter shouldn’t be using a Blackberry or recording devices during a church service anyway. If you can’t do it at the Supreme Court, you shouldn’t do it during a religious service.

    Sounds like the church is paranoid, but they sound a lot more cooperative than the folks at Falls Church and Truro during their defection.

  • Dennis Colby

    I agree with Jason. I have no idea where the idea comes from that the public has “full and unfettered access to houses of worship.” Anyone with a passing knowledge of different religious traditions in the U.S. knows that’s not the case. Houses of worship aren’t public property.

    That said, this sounds more or less similar to rules churches apply to cases where reporters cover, say, the funeral of a soldier killed in action. It doesn’t seem particularly outlandish to me. As Michael pointed out, if you cover, say, a federal court (which IS public property) you’re going to face similar, if not more restrictive, rules.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    Good point raised by Michael.

    However, did the Anglican churches block reporters from WORSHIP or from the actual legal business meetings in which the members of the parish cast their votes?

    As a reporter, I have never seen churches close worship. Ever. I have seen plenty of situations in which biz meetings were closed.

  • senlin

    I think it’s disrespectful to take notes, use a recorder, let a cell phone ring, etc., during a worship service, regardless of the individual motives a church may have for allowing or not allowing people to do so.
    It’s one thing to observe and make “mental notes,” but when you’re in a congregation, you should act in a way that is harmonious with what the congregation is generally doing, not as a “fly on the wall” at a community meeting or other public event.
    FYI, it is always inappropriate to write, record or take photos at any Jewish Sabbath service.

  • Jerry

    As a reporter, I have never seen churches close worship. Ever. I have seen plenty of situations in which biz meetings were closed.

    Unless I’m totally off base, aren’t Mormon temples are closed to non-Mormons after they’ve been consecrated? And that, of course, also means closed to those wanting to attend services.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    SENLIN:

    Millions of people take notes in worship services, in notepads or the margins of their Bibles. You are proposing, again, some kind of legal limits on the rights of citizens holding pens?

    Now, the issue of RECORDING is interesting. I guess that a pastor could say that she or he is enforcing a copyrite on the words and vocal performance. Again, however, many church members make recordings all of the time.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=2677 dpulliam

    Many churches put recordings of the sermons on iTunes too.

  • http://www.morethancake.org Joe Miller

    I think the rules are fine. They are simply asking guests to respect the purpose of the gathering and not turn it into a media opportunity.

  • senlin

    Tmatt:
    No, I’m just saying basically what Joe Miller is saying — respect the situation. If people are taking notes, then maybe you can, but if you’re the only one doing it while everyone is doing something radically different, then I would consider that disrespectful.
    I don’t think journalists should wait for rules to tell them when to do or not to do everything. Sometimes you should just take the moral high ground.

  • http://blog.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    The church is private property, and its owners/managers have the right to set whatever rules they want for use of the property. Also, in the case of the church, that’s not only a property right, it’s a First Amendment right. If it finds that any activity or the presence of any person would detract from the worship experience in its way, it’s fully within its rights to act accordingly. (The church can’t, however, unless the journalist agrees by entering into a contract, restrict what a reporter says or writes once he/she’s outside the church, because that would conflict with the journalist’s First Amendment right.)

    That said, unless there’s a problem with limited space, I find the policy of requiring reporters to register in advance as shortsighted.

  • Steven in Falls Church

    Regarding comment 4 above, The Falls Church and Truro were much more open to the media concerning their disaffiliation than Trinity. For example, instead of mandating preapproval of media attendance as Trinity does, TFC and Truro just asked for an advance email identifying the media outlet and representative who would be attending. Media badges also were not required. Here in its entirety is the joint TFC-Truro press release prior to announcement of the disaffiliation vote:

    Access for Journalists to Services Sunday, December 17 at The Falls Church and Truro Church in Northern Virginia;

    2 p.m. Sunday Media Briefing Also Planned at Truro Church

    FAIRFAX and FALLS CHURCH, VA, Dec. 15 – The Falls Church and Truro Church, which are scheduled to announce their congregation’s votes on their relationship with the U.S. Episcopal Church this Sunday, Dec. 17, will permit access for credentialed journalists to the announcements of the vote results at their 9 a.m. and 11:15 a.m. services, respectively.

    If you want to be included in any statements or news releases by The Falls Church and Truro Church, be sure to send you [sic] email to jim.pierobon@yahoo.com.

    The clergy and wardens of each church want to avoid any disruption or distraction in their services. They will require participating journalists to abide a few basic ground rules, which are spelled out below for each church.

    Please note the relatively short time between the announcement at The Falls Church during the 9 a.m. service, which concludes around 10:30 a.m., and the need to be in place at Truro Church by 11 a.m. Without traffic, it’s about a 25 minute drive from The Falls Church to Truro Church via I-66 westbound and Route 123 southbound.

    The Falls Church’s 9 a.m. Service

    1. Journalists need to be standing or seated in the southwest corner of the main sanctuary by 8:45 a.m. That’s 15 minutes before the start of the 9 a.m. service.

    2. It is our hope all journalists will remain for the entire service, worship with us and exit no earlier than the final hymn, around 10:30 a.m.

    3. A “mult box” will be available. Only available light will be permitted; no lights or flashes.

    4. The announcement is expected to be made around 10:15 a.m., although that could change.

    5. Parking for journalists is catch-as-catch can. The Falls Church is bordered on its south side by East Fairfax Street where we recommend you park.

    6. Interested media outlets arrive by 8:30 a.m. at the latest and look for a “media” poster signaling the easiest entrance to the main sanctuary. When on site, please contact Jim Pierobon on his mobile, 301-520-1758.

    7. Please do not park in the circular drive way off of Broad Street / Rte. 7. That is used regularly by clergy, the elderly and handicapped parishioners.

    Journalists should register their interest in witnessing this service by e-mailing the names of the person(s) representing their media outlet before 5 p.m. Saturday to: jim.pierobon@yahoo.com

    The Falls Church is about three miles inside the Washington Beltway / I-495 near the intersection of Lee Highway / Route 29 and Broad Street / Route 7. The address is: 115 E. Fairfax Street, Falls Church, VA 22046

    Truro Church’s 11:15 a.m. Service

    1. Journalists, camera crews and still photographers need to be in the balcony of Truro’s sanctuary by 11 a.m., 15 minutes before the start of the service.

    2. If you want a microwave van at Truro, be there by 7 a.m. because the parking lot starts filling up soon after that.

    3. Photography will not be allowed during the worship service itself. However, immediately after the service, the cameras in place are invited to record the introduction and acknowledgment of the vestry, the announcement of the vote, and the recessional hymn.

    4. A “mult box” will be available.

    5. Only available light may be used for photography; no lights nor flashes.

    6. Church leaders and parishioners will be made available to reporters and television crews for interviews after the 11:15 a.m. service concludes around 12:45 p.m.

    7. Box lunches, or their equivalent, will be available from 12:45 – 1:30 p.m.

    8. Please leave sidewalks clear. Parking is available in the commercial bank lot across Main Street.

    Journalists should register their interest in witnessing this service by emailing the names of the person(s) representing their media outlet before 5 p.m. Saturday to: jim@wslogic.com

    Truro is a block west of the intersection of Chain Bridge Road / Route 123 and Main Street in downtown Fairfax. The address: 10520 Main Street, Fairfax, VA 22030.

    2 p.m. Media Briefing at Truro Church’s “Common Ground”

    As of Friday afternoon, those scheduled to speak briefly are:

    1. The Rt. Rev. Martyn Minns, currently Priest-in-Charge of Truro and missionary Bishop of the Convocation of Anglicans in North America (CANA);
    2. The Rev. John Yates, Rector of The Falls Church;
    3. Jim Oakes, Senior Warden, Truro Church;
    4. Additional clergy whose churches voted this past week;
    5. CANA Trustee and Secretary, Gboyega Delano.

    Other leaders from these churches, including wardens and vestry members will be available for interviews after the formal remarks.

    A “mult box” will be available. Lights will be allowed in the briefing.

    Those attending Truro’s 11:15 a.m. service or media briefing should send an email to: jim@wslogic.com

    Summary of Churches Voting By This Weekend

    If you want to be included in a future release intended to summarize the results of churches voting by this weekend, please send an email to: jim.pierobon@yahoo.com.

  • http://www.episcopalswfl.org Jim DeLa

    As a communications officer for an Episcopal diocese, I take photos during worship services all the time. I also record portions of the service AND take notes so my stories are accurate. I’ve never heard a complaint from clergy or parishioners.

    Imposing these kind of restrictions says the church doesn’t want the media there — so they go the passive-aggressive route and make it as difficult as possible for reporters to do their job. It’s like calling a plumber and telling him he has to leave his toolbox at home and then complaning about shoddy work.

    Video cameras and digital recorders are silent. So you’re telling me someone writing on a piece of paper from across the room can keep you from concentrating on a sermon? I’ve never been to a church that quiet on a Sunday morning.

  • http://blog.muchmorethanwords.com gfe

    Jerry asked:

    Unless I’m totally off base, aren’t Mormon temples are closed to non-Mormons after they’ve been consecrated? And that, of course, also means closed to those wanting to attend services.

    Yes, the temples are closed to nonmembers. But worship services aren’t held there, only various rituals. Anyone can attend a Sunday service (called a sacrament meeting), which is held in a regular church building, and there is not even a prohibition on nonmembers accepting the sacrament (the equivalent of Communion or the Eucharist).

    I assume that reporters attended some LDS services with Mitt Romney when he was running for president. I would be surprised, though, if they were allowed to record anything using any tool other than a notebook.

  • Michael

    Imposing these kind of restrictions says the church doesn’t want the media there — so they go the passive-aggressive route and make it as difficult as possible for reporters to do their job. It’s like calling a plumber and telling him he has to leave his toolbox at home and then complaning about shoddy work.

    Yet reporters deal with these kinds of restriction all the time. As I said, the U.S. Supreme Court restricts recording devices, computers, telephones, badges, etc. There are obviously no cameras. There are no cameras in many parts of the U.S. Capitol. You are restricted where you can use cell phones. You are asked to wear identification so people know you are the media.

    A church doesn’t want to turn their service into a circus with people chattering on phones, taking pictures, typing on their Blackberries. A place like TUCC, which is now likely being beseiged by the press, is taking reasonable restrictions.

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