When journalists crash rites

The sanctuary was dark, except for candles near the altar, and it was quiet, other than the priest’s prayers and hushed responses from the pews.

It was time for another execution in a North Carolina prison and, on this night more than two decades ago, I was kneeling with others opposed to the death penalty — not covering the rite as a Charlotte Observer reporter.

What I failed to realize was that other journalists would crash our vigil.

The television crew entered just before midnight. The cameraman clanked down the center aisle and, before reaching the altar, turned to shoot from behind the pulpit. His shoulder-mounted lights almost blinded people in the front rows.

Please consider this scene through the eyes of the angry, frustrated worshippers.

Would church members, if asked in advance, have approved what happened during our service? No way. But would we have been willing to discuss finding a way for reporters to cover the vigil without wrecking it? Of course we would.

Here’s the key question: Was there a way to cover the news in this liturgy without convincing the participants that these journalists just didn’t care? Could the broadcasters have sat silently, making recordings of the prayers to mix with images of the candles, sanctuary and worshipers that were filmed later?

It’s important for journalists to ask these questions. However, I think it’s crucial that clergy and laypeople think about these issues, too.

Memories of that Charlotte night in flashed through my mind recently as I read media protocols written by leaders of some historic, conservative Episcopal parishes in Northern Virginia that are trying to leave the Episcopal Church because of longstanding disputes over church doctrine and sexual morality.

Days before a key round of voting, parish leaders stated: “Please note that leaders of The Falls Church ? will prohibit any journalist who is not a regular worshiper from filming, researching or seeking to interview clergy or congregants about their votes on church property or inside a church facility. Journalists seeking to interview clergy or congregants off church property are asked to respect their individual wishes about dealings with the media.”

Wait, what did the word “researching” mean?

This worried me as a reporter who has, for several decades, tried to cover the complicated global fights among Anglicans. To be blunt, I worried that these church leaders would end up barring veteran religion reporters — professionals whose faces they recognized — from entering these services, while admitting less-experienced, and therefore anonymous, journalists.

The good news is that these churches soon changed the ground rules after listening to the concerns of journalists. Media-savvy parish members made it clear they were not hiding and that they knew journalists needed some form of access.

There are lessons to be learned from these events.

One of the most crucial elements of journalism is the ability to hear words and then quote them accurately. This requires access. There are times when the sermons, prayers and scriptures included in worship services are vital elements of regional, national and global news stories.

Leaders of churches, temples and mosques must ask: How can reporters hear, record and report these words if they are not allowed polite access? How can they ?get? the religion in these stories if they are prevented from reporting the content of public events? Talking to people in the parking lot will not get you this theological content, other than through second-hand reports.

At the same time, there is no need for rude journalists to invade services and disturb the faithful. There is no need to badger worshipers who don’t want to talk.

But if journalists — including religion-beat professionals — want to listen, it’s in the long-range interests of honest, candid religious leaders to let them listen. Then journalists can leave the sanctuaries and talk to people who freely agree to talk.

It doesn’t make sense to lock reporters out of newsworthy services. Sometimes, we have to be there because we have work to do. And part of that work involves finding a way to capture the words and images of the stories we need to tell. At the same time, it’s wrong for journalists to wreck the very rites that we are trying to cover.

Perhaps it’s time for leaders on both sides of this tense divide to show each other some respect.

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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.


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