Covering Church: Rights vs. Rites

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 church 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?

Memories of that night in Charlotte flashed through my mind recently as I read media protocols written by leaders of some historic, conservative Episcopal congregations in northern Virginia [PDF]. I studied these guidelines, written to protect churchgoers who were preparing for worship services that would frame a week of voting on motions to leave the Episcopal Church. The votes would come after decades of fighting over issues of sexual morality and creedal doctrines.

The rules at one church stated, in part:

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.

This worried me as a journalist. It also concerned me as someone who, for several decades, has tried to cover the complicated regional, national and global wars among Anglicans.

What did the word “researching” mean? Would church leaders, in effect, prevent veteran religion reporters — professionals whose faces they recognized — from entering these services, while admitting less-informed, and therefore anonymous, journalists? Was that the goal? Surely not.

I’m happy to report that these churches changed the ground rules before the second set of Sunday services. They did so in part because they listened to the concerns of journalists — including more than a few who are members of these parishes. Media-savvy parish members made it clear that they were not hiding. They also knew journalists needed some controlled form of access in order to get their work done.

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 crucial elements of regional, national and global news stories.

But how can reporters hear, record and report these words if they are not allowed polite access? How do you get the religion in these stories if you are prevented from reporting the content of public services? Talking to people in the parking lot will not get you this theological content, other than through second-hand reports.

So, no riots, or invading aliens. No rude journalists disturbing worshippers. No badgering the faithful who do not want to talk.

But if journalists — including religion-beat professionals — want to sit and listen, I say let them. Then they can leave the sanctuary and talk with people who agree to be interviewed. They can do that outside, if that is what the people being interviewed prefer.

I oppose locking journalists out of newsworthy services. They have to be there. At the same time, I think it is wrong for journalists to wreck the rites they are trying to cover. Surely, there is some middle way.

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