News or PR

Cynthia Astle, former editor of United
Methodist Reporter, seems to have struck a nerve by raising questions about how
religious groups, specifically The United Methodist Church, report

Cynthia Astle, former editor of United Methodist Reporter, seems to have struck a nerve by raising questions about how religious groups, specifically The United Methodist Church, report news.

Writing in Zion’s Herald she views the shift in editorial policy at UMR toward softer news as an attempt to silence the messengers who bring information the church doesn’t want to hear.

Dean Snyder blogs a cogent and comprehensive review of the challenge that religion journalists face in balancing their responsbilities to tell the truth, to present the agenda of the church in a responsible way and to keep the reader engaged. As Dean writes, it’s not as simple an issue as it might appear. And that’s not the half of it.

Cynthia writes that the church wants to kill the messenger rather than hear an uncomfortable message. With regard to news, this is nothing new or unique and it’s certainly not limited to the church. It’s pretty common across the board. But, while I want to address that concern, I also suggest this point doesn’t go deep enough to assess the state of communication in the church and the wider culture today. It’s difficult to discuss news without also looking at the wider context of culture, environment and technology.

We are in a time in which we have more media available to us than ever before and they are being used to entertain, divert and lure us to a lifestyle of consumption. Sadly, it’s often true they don’t bring us the facts we need to make decisions about our life together as a church or as a global community. Michael Bugeja, in his book The Interpersonal Divide, makes the case that Boomers view the media as sources of information while Gen Xers and younger generations view them as sources of entertainment. Bugeja says this distinction changes both paradigms and theories that once helped us understand media and puts us in an entirely different, and new, media environment.

As valid as Cynthia’s concerns are, this is a much deeper problem than editorial changes at UMR. UMR is struggling to change its business model because its printing services are no longer viable. That’s a big enough problem to cause the leaders of UMR to lose sleep. But, there is even more. Communications organizations, whether they deliver news or other forms of information, are struggling to survive in an environment that has become more competitive than ever. People have nearly unlimited sources of information. We no longer live in a world of “one to many” communication. There is no single filter.

One result of this, according to Bugeja, is loss of perspective. The parade of stories before us leaves us no time to reflect upon the importance of one compared to the others, except, of course, for obviously cataclysmic events that clearly affect us in profound ways. But it also means that relatively inconsequential stories are juxtaposed against more significant ones. If Michael Jackson were juxtaposed against a new scientific advance, as actually happened recently, guess which would get widest coverage.

In addition, the culture in which we communicate has become coarser, more polarized and more sharply critical than in the past. New media are changing more than the tools of communication, they are changing communications itself. Digital and electronic media are lacking in fundamental ways. Internet communication lacks the full range of cues that face-to-face conversation offers so that miscommunication is more likely to occur. Instantaneous communication makes it possible for us to fire off a missive while we’re highly motivated (read that as really angry) without giving the message the reflection and consideration that it probably deserves.

The practice of mainstream media, especially television news and talk shows, to reduce important issues to their simplest form, and to frame them as polar opposites, “good vs. evil, right vs. wrong, us vs. them,” has conditioned our public dialogue. While they ignore the middle, it’s rarely true that a complex issue of public policy, or of theology, for that matter, is reducible to simple polar extremes.

Daily we witness national political leaders choose to play to their base, taking partisan positions for political gain and neglecting to lead us in a way that brings us together as an inclusive community. The public conversation degenerates into rhetorical jabs rather than more comprehensive discussion of the multiple sides of complex issues. Civility is abandoned. A few highly visible voices even use the Bible to bless their incivility.

Add to this the pervasive anti-institutionalism of U.S. culture and its flip side, the elevation of individualism over community responsibility, and you have a stew pot ready made for the kind of coarsened and divisive conversation we’re seeing today within the church and the wider society. I believe it’s dehumanizing and, ultimately, self-destructive.

UMR, Zion’s Herald and other communications organizations are attempting to survive within these swirling waters, and we’re all taking hits daily from every side.

So the issue isn’t so simple as choosing between news and public relations. That’s a false choice. It’s harder to figure out how to engage the interests of a reader, viewer or listener while competing with hundreds of other messages and, at the same time, interpret complex issues of faith in a digestible way while not being co-opted by those with an agenda.

At the risk of going on and on with these changes I’ll mention only one more. Those communications organizations that were formed under the old paradigm of one to many have to adapt not only to this new reality in technology and technique, they must also decide how to deliver information to persons who have vastly different skills and desires in their use of technology. Some want their information only in print. Others want to see, read and hear. Others want condensed e-mail. Still others want a complete database from which to pick and choose that which interests or concerns them. Some want instantaneous information 24/7. Each of these methods requires staff, technology and infrastructure, which means money.

Audiences today are global. We publish in three languages and serve multiple language groups. We need to add at least two languages, possibly more. We have discussions daily about cultural biases inherent in how we tell stories and how to minimize them because we write for a global audience and our stories are received in vastly different cultural contexts.

I’m not whining, complaining nor asking for sympathy. I’m just saying this is how it is. This isn’t even the whole story. In our organization news is one function among many others. We keep it separate and independent to preserve the integrity of the work. But news isn’t all that we’re about. So, as long as this post is, I’m just scratching the surface, but it’s enough for now.

Put all of this together and top it off with the obvious need to survive and you have some of the challenges that are confronting communications organizations today.

To any leader who thinks that communicating is simple and easily controlled in this environment, I say, “Good luck.”

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