On not blaming the media for covering the sexuality struggle

The Episcopal News Service report on the Council of Anglican Province in Africa's recently completed bishops' conference is now online. Among its sources is a report by Jan Butter, the director of communications for the Anglican Communion which laments that coverage of the conference focused primarily on controversy over human sexuality.

I sympathize with anyone who is trying to get the good works of their church covered, but when I read this sort of essay, I generally feel that the mainstream media is perfectly justified in ignoring the themes we hoped will attract them. To take this instance as a case study: CAPA as a body has no particular track record in righting the many wrongs it claims that it wants to address. This isn't necessarily CAPA's fault; it is a young and underfunded organization, and its day as a major force might yet come, but looking at its goals, my reaction as a secular journalist would be: These are fine sentiments, get back to me when you have done something. And, again, CAPA is just a case study here. I hear the same kinds of complaints about why the secular media doesn't write about the resolutions we pass at General Convention which express our church's good intentions but make nothing happen.

Of course, if you actually were making something happen, I would have endeavored to know about it before you held a conference. If I am going to write a story about a bishop who is going to plant a million trees before he dies, to cite one of Butter's examples, I am not going to do it by following him around to write a feature story, not by covering a speech he gives at a conference. The fact that he is giving this speech is perhaps the least interesting thing about him. It can't be the peg for my story.

The simple facts are a) that journalists hate covering conferences, which are primarily occasions for speechifying; and b) that journalists are much more likely to write about how we use power than that we aspire to influence. There is a vast chorus speaking out on climate change (which isn't to say we shouldn't do it, only that our doing it is not necessarily newsworthy) whereas we are the only ones who will decide how the Anglican Communion ultimately handles the issue of human sexuality.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing--at least for the Episcopal Church. One frequently reads about church people lamenting the fact that the media never looks beyond the sexuality debate. The assumption here seems to be that there is a given number of column inches committed to our church, and that they all get used up on sex. This isn't the case. We are one percent of the US population. If reporters weren't writing about the sexuality debate, they wouldn't be writing about us at all. Better to use the interest generated by the sexuality debate to reach out to people whose views on this issue are similar to ours than to lament that fact that no one is paying attention to the good work of program X, which, in most instances, is dwarfed by a similar program run by somebody else.

And while we are at it, we should get comfortable living in the midst of controversy. It is where people who profess to follow Jesus should expect to find themselves.

Comments (10)

Fiddling around with Google Realtime I was reminded of how one needs to keep proportions in mind when thinking about news coverage. What do you think was the biggest news story this year involving Rowan Williams? If you think it has to do with the Anglican Communion per se you'd be wrong. It was in April -- when he said something regarded as critical of the Irish Catholic Church. Size and proximity matter.

Jim Naughton, you get smarter all the time.

Susan Russell

The reason the Episcopal Church interests the American media is not the meager one percent official membership. It is the much larger number of non-member people who identify themselves as Episcopalian, who go to church for their baptism, wedding and funeral, and perhaps Christmas and Easter. A good number of our friends have been married in Epsicopal churches, even though they were not members at the time. Some later joined.
It is also because of the long connection between the Episcopal Church and the American establishment, political, financial, educational, and artistic. The so-called Church of the Presidents, and the National Cathedral are ours. St John the Divine in NY and Grace Cathedral in SF are ours. People from many religions send their kids to local Episcopal schools and aspire to send them to Episcopal prep schools.
In short, we should not forget that this church is important in America in very special, indeed unique ways.

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Thanks, Jim. Except in memoirs, reporters seldom write about how they think and what they look for. You have addressed both with gentle clarity.

Thanks for this! I've often tried to explain to non-media types that churches rarely attract good attention because stories churches want publicized typically are of the dog-bites-man type. Churches are *supposed* to be centers of love and concern and respect and outreach. They get attention from outside when a) they do those things in novel and interesting ways, or b) fail to do those things and look hypocritical in the process.

We see examples of the first in this site's Sunday Roundup (and, we hope, at home in our parishes). We see examples of the second all the time, everywhere.

Michael Rich+

Um, by Sunday Roundup, I clearly meant Saturday Collection. Pesky facts.

Thankyou, Jim, for this
Thankyou, Jim, for your timely reminder that the Church is just one of many organisations that demand the attention of reporters of 'news'. The reason why sexuality and the Church is highly reported on is simply that sexuality is a matter that involves every single human being - and is therefore something that both the Church and the Media need to talk about.

Incidentally, as a blogger with 'Thinking Anglicans', I appreciate the connection with your 'Episcopal Cafe' column. It is refreshing to a New Zealander who wants dearly to advance the way of openness in the Church to issues of gender and sexuality, as and where they affect the outlook and ministry of the Church.

Thanks, Jim, for your interesting blog on the media's engagement with church. You're spot with your challenge to those who think the secular media 'ought' to cover church issues other than the controversial ones. Journalists owe the church nothing. You're also entirely correct when you say that conferences aren't generally the stuff of gripping copy.

As a former secular journalist myself I did think that this conference, of 400 of Africa's Christian leaders speaking about the future of their continent, was pretty newsworthy though. Especially as, in Africa (arguably more than in North America and Europe) religious leaders have major influence at all levels of society. Indeed both the Ugandan Prime Minister and the President of the country saw fit to attend the conference and address the assembled bishops.

I wrote my piece to lament the fact that, at a conference where there was little mention of human sexuality and discord, the blogs, newspapers and TV pieces were filled with little else. Those of us in Entebbe didn't recognise the conference that the media was portraying. I actually think this was an example of how coverage of one or two (albeit important) issues overshadowed other issues that hamper the church's ministry and prevent men, women and children from living life in all its fulness. Shouldn't this have been a major opportunity (in Uganda and elsewhere) for the media to highlight and debate other challenging issues facing Africa including corruption, poverty, conflict and violence?

Jim, I couldn't agree more with you that it's up to the church (i.e. we Christians) to make journalists aware of the impact of the life-changing work we're doing in Christ's name. The old adage 'don't tell me, show me' couldn't be truer about church communications. In my new role I'm hoping to encourage all Provinces of the Anglican Communion to effectively engage with local, national and global media (both traditional and social) as part of its mission to share the Gospel.

Perhaps my first call should be to that bishop I mentioned in my piece? I'm sure there's at least a photo-story in the 24,000 trees that he has already planted as a first step to reaching his one million target.

Kind regards. Jan.

Thanks for commenting on this article, Jan.

Everything I have heard about the conference confirms what you have written: that the conference experienced by those who attended bore little resemblance to the conference as it appeared in the media. I think part of that can be attributed to some of the issues we have touched on, but there is another factor at work.

There are any number of powerful people in the Communion who have decided that it must be remade. These folks endeavor to make schism the theme of every Anglican gathering. Because some of them are primates, the media gives creedence to what they say. Because they have succesfully established one particular narrative--the Communion may fracture over homosexuality--they only need to give it a bit of a push every now and then to keep it spinning. It isn't the media's fault that conference coverage focused so much on homosexuality, except to the extent that they keep printing the un-Christian things that Henry Orombi and now, alas, Ian Earnest have to say.

One other factor driving the coverage of the Communion is that the leaders of many of our provinces have said such outrageously silly and sometimes hateful things about LGBT people that the media doesn't care what they say about other issues because they are not regarded as credible leaders. Does anyone really care what Orombi and Mouneer Anis have to say about, say debt relief, after Orombi says he is afraid to wear his collar in the west because of gay assassins, and Anis says he was chased around the Lambeth Conference by hundreds of gay activists? Reporters know that talking to these guys produces one very particular kind of story, but that they will look foolish if they quote them on anything else.

You have a difficult job ahead of you, and I wish you well. If you get someone to write about that bishop planting the trees, we will defiitely link to it. Let me know if there are other ways in which we can be helpful.

A very fine piece, Jim, on which I've been intending to comment. Jan Butter's comment highlights what strikes me as an important issue.

Perhaps during the conference they were mostly talking about issues of poverty, health (or the lack thereof), and other issues that affect people's lives. But what did they talk about when reporters approached them outside the conference sessions? Sex and the nasty ol' Episcopal Church, as far as I can tell.

When journalists approached them, did the bishops burn with zeal for their people and passion to improve their lives? Not that I could tell.

What a person says to a reporter reveals what really matters to her/him, and the bishops seemed to use their few opportunities in Entebbe to hammer away at homosexuals and those who decline to imprison or kill them.

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