By Jim Naughton
To succeed fully, the bishops of the Lambeth Conference must avoid committing news. Any truly newsworthy development initiated by the bishops now gathered at Canterbury would represent a premature attempt to close questions not yet ready for resolution. Left to their own devices, the bishops might just be able to pull this off, but the bishops will not be left to their own devices. There will be a vast horde of media at the conference, and they will have to justify their presence by coming up with stories.
Unfortunately, a well run conference at which the bishops worship together, share from the heart in small Bible study groups, attend first-rate educational programs and begin the difficult work of figuring out how our theologically divided Communion can begin to move forward in mission—not to mention time set aside during the conference for solitude and private reflection—puts readers to sleep and does little to justify the expense that media outlets incur in sending reporters to Canterbury in the first place. Additionally, as all reporters know, editors have a tendency to hold them personally responsible if the event they are covering doesn’t yield good copy—the notion being that there are no dull events, only dull reporters. Finally, if you are at a competitive daily paper, there is also the status of your beat to think about. You don’t want your colleagues thinking that religion is a backwater beat for backwater hacks.
So stories must be wrung from the Lambeth Conference, and the wringing must commence as soon as a critical mass of bishops have assembled on the grounds of the University of Kent. One reporter I spoke to today described the atmosphere among the press at Canterbury as akin to an episode of Gossip Girl. Someone puts a thinly sourced item on their blog. Everyone else whispers among themselves: Where did it come from? Is it true? If it is true, do you try to match it? If it isn’t true, do you say so, or let it slide?
I have tremendous sympathy for reporters who function in many instances as the public’s surrogates. I am someone whose phone rings when information from official sources is scarce. Yet there is a difference between the public’s right to know and a reporter’s right to a compelling story. My concern for the Lambeth Conference is that a critical mass of reporters—or perhaps just a handful of influential ones—will deem the conference a failure if it does not produce the sort of stories that they want to write, that they will say so repeatedly in the pages of their papers or on their blogs, and that this perception will become reality.
The only inoculation against this outcome that I can perceive—outside of an unexpected outbreak of forbearance from the British press—are vivid daily media briefings that feature bishops with good gripping stories to tell about how the conference’s theme of the day figures in their lives and ministries, and the lives and ministries of their people.
I should be in Canterbury by about noon EDT, and will try to keep you updated on how those briefings progress. Over the next two or three days, be wary of stories purporting to expose secret goings-on, or those that complain of conference policies that keep the media at a distance. There just isn’t that much going on yet.