In 1994, right before the Southern Baptist Convention met in Orlando, the little paper I edited ran an investigative piece about a far-reaching policy at one of our SBC agencies. It was an embarrassment to the president of that agency and he responded by calling our executive director as he was packing for the trip and asking in a loud voice, “Can’t you control those people?!” The exec backed us (those people) up in that case, and the agency president took his lumps. It doesn’t happen every year, but I’ve seen a version of this struggle between reporters and administrators for how the news is told many times and at all denominational levels.
What is the legitimate role of the denominational press, the Baptist state publications, as the leaders of our work and the constituent churches attempt to communicate with one another? A bit of the answer is presupposed in my question—the publications pass information to and from both parties in various ways. Because state papers are positioned to know the churches of our state conventions better than national leaders, we ask questions or seek information we believe will be beneficial to our churches’ stewardship of SBC work. These questions, and some editorial content, help alert leaders to how churches in different parts of the country understand their ministries. Because journalists have opportunities to observe the work of our SBC leaders, we can interpret their work to our churches in a way that makes sense and usually encourages them. This interpretation is more crucial and difficult when the news is less encouraging.
Most recently, for example, the “less encouraging” news came from the International Mission Board as it completed the hard work of cutting personnel in order to balance the budget. Something had to be done, and it was a challenging way for President David Platt to begin his tenure at IMB. In the midst of conference calls, press conferences, and other contacts between IMB leadership and the denominational press, there was a bit of a struggle over the message. Is the headline “IMB brings expenses into line” or “IMB cuts 1,132 missionaries and staff”? That’s the struggle. It’s nearly always a disagreement made inevitable by the differences between the role of news writers and that of visionary leaders. Though passions may run high, it’s rarely a matter of good guys versus bad guys. But someone will almost always speak as if it is.
Someone who asks, “How will this work?” or “What will this cost?” is seeking information, not trying to undermine God’s kingdom.
Here are some thoughts on the responsibilities of the denominational press telling difficult stories and a couple of ideas for those who find us frustrating.
Journalists should ask about issues or decisions we don’t understand or that should be more completely told. Sometimes asking questions is seen as malicious or an effort to trip up a spokesman. This happens and probably explains why some folks won’t talk to reporters. But asking is not by definition contrarian, although it may turn that way when a reporter is biased or when a leader keeps too many secrets.
Baptist papers should provide information and examples that spur churches to support Southern Baptist work worldwide. These stories are crucial and gathering them requires full cooperation from our leaders. I add here that the IMB has been exemplary in cooperation with the denominational press as we seek missions stories.
Baptist journalists must give churches a clear understanding of why things are not going according to plan and what is being done about it. This is tricky for both parties, but if we don’t do it, church leaders become cynical or immune to our calls for support. That has happened over the past 40 years.
Journalists should not, however, be recreationally suspicious of those who lead ministries broader than our own. It can become a habit or a lazy man’s version of “objectivity,” but suspicion, snark and insinuation are death to our work. Neither should we be an uncritical extension of someone’s public relations team. We do wish our leaders well but cannot become habitual boosters of every plan or leader.
Leaders, tell it all, unless you can share a good reason to keep something secret. Confidentiality should be the exception rather than just the easy option. When a reporter seeks access to your business, see her as representing thousands of readers with whom you’ll never have any other contact. She does. Would you treat hundreds or thousands of Southern Baptists attending your meeting as intruders?
When a leader shares a vision or plan at a press conference, he must remember that he is not the only person in the conversation who talks to God. Someone who asks, “How will this work?” or “What will this cost?” is seeking information, not trying to undermine God’s kingdom.
Similarly, leaders are not the only people in the room who want the mission of the SBC to succeed. Baptist editors and reporters are committed to the prospering of God’s work through Southern Baptists. Unity in purpose does not mean we ignore hard questions.
“Good journalism” is not necessarily telling the story a reader wants told in the way he wants it told. Of course it follows that “poor journalism” is not simply defined as a story we wish was not true. Poor journalism exists, of course, but it’s sloppy, even sinful, to slander a writer just because his perspective or the news he tells annoys us.
This tense interplay between newsmakers and those who tell and explain the news is not a recent phenomenon, and it will not end. When Christian brothers are on both ends of the communications process, we are obligated to treat one another with the kind of respect we don’t always see in the culture at large. “Respect” does not mean we must agree. It does require news people to think carefully about what is edifying as well as what is true. It requires that both parties develop thick skin and a bit of grace. We will not always agree on what’s true, much less on what is edifying to the kingdom.
I believe newsmakers and news reporters have distinct and important roles within the kingdom of God. We each have responsibilities, and we can provoke one another to fully live up to our Great Commission ideals. Perhaps it can be a mutually edifying relationship if all parties approach it that way.