The church must report its own news, good and bad

One of the cornerstones of a free and democratic society is a healthy and free news media. The editors of the New York Times write of it with concern about the tension between transparency and national security. It is not an easy issue to grasp in all its dimensions. Watching crackdowns in China and Iran this year has given me a greater appreciation for living in a country where information is freely shared.

We in the church wrestle with the challenge of openness and transparency as well. In our age, institutions are distrusted and leaders are viewed skeptically. An open and transparent church, I believe, needs a news service that not only tells the church’s positive stories but is able to report news that might make us uncomfortable at times. In their wisdom, the leaders of The United Methodist Church in the past provided for this important function.

It is, in my opinion, one of our great strengths.

In my role as publisher of United Methodist News Service, I am often called on to defend or explain a decision to report on a sensitive issue. You can take your pick of issues – homosexuality, church trials, constitutional amendments. People often ask me why the church’s news agency would disclose information about disagreements or problems in the church.

The answer is simple: Reporting the unvarnished truth is our responsibility to the church and to you. It’s a core value. Out of our collective experience as a people of faith our forefathers and foremothers determined it is necessary for the good of the whole. This is a remarkable stand for integrity and truthfulness.

Being a truly open church requires being transparent about what goes on in our congregations, conferences and agencies. It means being accountable, from the local level right up to the Council of Bishops. The absence of accountability leaves room for a host of problems, ranging from complacence to the misuse of power.

Those who formulated this reporting role also decided it was better for the church to report its own news than to cede that role to outside entities.

As a result, The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline provides for a newsgathering function that is editorially independent. This is essential for several reasons.

Having a news agency with the ability to report both the good and bad news generates a high level of credibility for the church itself. It’s a sign that the church holds itself accountable and strives to be transparent in its work. A news service without that freedom would essentially be doing public relations – an important function but one that is distinct from news reporting – and that symbol of transparency and accountability would be diminished.

An editorially independent news service also means the church is the primary source of news about itself, so the church is telling its story in a way that is journalistically sound and credible. If the church didn’t report its own news, then it would be defined by outside media that don’t understand the church as well. Other media also have less stake in how the church’s stories are told and, for that matter, whether they are told at all.

The presence of a healthy news service makes a statement that the church believes it has stories to tell about how its members are making a difference in the world and how people’s lives are being transformed through the church’s role as the body of Christ. For a denomination the size of The United Methodist Church, those stories are limitless. Moreover, we find that nearly every major news story has a potential United Methodist angle, and the stories of individual people living their faith journeys in interesting ways are innumerable.

Our editorial standards are consistent with the best practices and standards of the news profession. Our staff comprises professionally trained journalists who have had experience working in secular media. We apply the same news values to our work as our secular counterparts, with an additional sensibility that our role in the church brings. That means that while we use the same criteria in determining what stories are newsworthy, we also make allowances for stories that might be very important to some segments of our audience but that wouldn’t excite a secular reporter.

Our stories are largely a mixture of news reports and human-interest features on how the church and individuals are making a difference in the world. They are stories that can make you laugh, cry, pray or take action. If we are doing our job, some of our stories will occasionally make you squirm or even make you mad.

As we move forward into a new era of reporting through social media, I am excited about being even more engaged with our audiences. I invite you to engage with us as well via e-mail, comments on our story pages and posts on our Facebook page. Let us know how our stories resonate with you, and let’s be in conversation.

6 Responses to “The church must report its own news, good and bad”

  1. beth g sanders September 23, 2009 at 9:36 am #

    I’m highly encouraged by this as the Church often lags far behind in understanding and adopting new technologies. The importance of being open to, embracing and responding appropriately to negative feedback cannot be overemphasized.

    With current downward trends in church attendance and membership, it is more vital than ever to establish trust and credibility within our communities.

    I would urge congregations who do not yet see the value of social media to their overall communications strategy to, at the very least, begin to listen to the thoughts, needs and perceptions of those in your community.

    You never know what needs you’ll discover – and be able to address -simply by listening.

  2. Lonnie September 23, 2009 at 8:30 pm #

    I surely support openness in our Church processes, and a free Church press, as Dr. Hollon argues, is important to that goal. I argued the open meetings position of UMCom before the Judicial Council in UMCom’s dispute with the Council of Bishops over that issue. But our Church polity importantly provides that certain processes involving complaints against individuals remain confidential (¶361.1.b) ¶363.1 ¶413.3.b)&c) ¶606.6 ¶2701.5). It is important that UMCom and its personnel rigorously respect this requirement of confidentiality in this part of the Church’s life which is, unfortunately, increasing common these days.

    Lonnie D. Brooks, member
    East Anchorage UMC
    Anchorage, Alaska

  3. Roge September 24, 2009 at 5:56 am #

    Quoted from the main article:
    “We in the church wrestle with the challenge of openness and transparency as well. In our age, institutions are distrusted and leaders are viewed skeptically. An open and transparent church, I believe, needs a news service that not only tells the church’s positive stories but is able to report news that might make us uncomfortable at times.”

    I agree on this notion of openness and transparency within The United Methodist Church. But the idea of news service shall consider delimitations. If it is within the bound of The United Methodist Church only, well and good. It is a must to say that we need news services that will not only report good news but also bad news as well.

    Roge Sison

  4. Erik September 24, 2009 at 1:35 pm #

    Thank you, Larry Hollon, for a timely and important witness about this topic. I, for one, never take for granted the editorial independence of UMNS and thank God for it.

  5. cspogue September 25, 2009 at 12:35 pm #

    I have to wonder if this was written with Bishop’s Stanovsky’s letter in mind. There is a difference between transparency and gossip.

    Unfortunately, there have been times where everyone would have been better off if hard questions had been asked. For instance, when Cokesbury’s staff continued to say that things were fine when they obviously weren’t. When you look at their report in the ADCA, it is evident that they had been paying the $1 million annual pension distribution out of reserves, not “profits.”

    Or, when you look at the actual text of the seminaries report written by GBHEM, you can quickly see that 64 ordinands collectively came from six of our UM schools, but 61 came from one “non-UM” school alone. That should cause us to ReThink how we fund ministerial education.

    There are plenty of other examples.

  6. anonymous September 26, 2009 at 10:18 am #

    You remind us as responders to “Avoid personal attacks, cloaked or obvious. Do not attack me, other bloggers or other commenters. Do not use language that is unlawful, obscene, defamatory, threatening, harassing, abusive, slanderous, hateful or embarrassing to any other person or entity.” (Purpose Statement and Comment Policy, above).

    Once again, the “church” fails to practice what it preaches–claiming a moral high ground in words while smearing others in actions. It is a methodology that has been used by ecclesiastical ‘leaders’ for centuries. Thanks be to God, that we are in decline.

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