A Religion Scholar's Guide
to Dealing with the News Media
The phone rings.
"Professor so-and-so, this is Andy Hardy at the News-Distort."
Your heart sinks. It’s one of them.
"I’m working on a story about Bulgarian Muslims, about Judeo-Christian rock, about sex and the single Episcopalian, about...your specialty. Do you have a moment?"
This has happened to you before. How innocent you were, that first time. Flattered to be asked to expound on the subject dearest to your heart, you prattled on and on, setting forth the context, laying out the nuances. And how polite he’d seemed, making little noises of agreement, hanging (it seemed) on your every word.
And then the story appeared. The conventional wisdom, which you had been at such pains to lay waste, was presented almost as gospel. Not only had the entire burden of your remarks been cast aside, but what he picked out to quote was a stray remark, an ironical aside, which he’d twisted, or dumbly misunderstood, to mean just the opposite of what you’d intended.
Nor was that the only time. Time and again -- well, maybe twice or thrice -- you’d been burned, until swearing you had learned your lesson, you vowed never more to vouchsafe a thought, a suggestion, an ex cathedra pronunciamento to one of those monkeys. Let them dig up other saps!
And yet, and yet, are you not a teacher? Is it not your vocation, your responsibility, your moral imperative, to help enlighten the public? Is there not a way to talk to reporters while protecting yourself from misrepresentation, caricature, or outright abuse?
Herewith is a guide to doing just that. It cannot, of course, promise the complete protection that keeping mum assures. Consider it, rather, as a way to minimize the risks while attempting to serve the common weal.
First off, ascertain the constraints that Hardy is operating under. Ask: "What’s your deadline?" It may be that he has to turn in a story in two hours. If so, he’s probably looking for nothing more than a three-minute abstract, a punchy quote, and perhaps another expert or two to call. At the other extreme, he may just be embarking on a lengthy project and will want to pick your brains for an hour. If that is the case, don’t be reluctant to schedule a time to talk that’s more convenient for you.
Off the Record
Unless you specify otherwise, anything you say to Hardy after he identifies himself is "on the record," i.e., it can be put in the newspaper with your name attached. However, you are free to specify otherwise. There is no better way to protect yourself from being misquoted or misrepresented than by saying to Hardy (once the preliminaries are over), "I’d feel more comfortable if we talk off the record." Although "off the record" signifies slightly different things to different journalists, it always means: You cannot quote this with my name attached. You can also indicate that you wish to speak "on background," meaning that the information you have to impart can be used but not attributed to you.
If you go off the record immediately, Hardy will want to know if you are prepared at some point to provide him with a quote he can use. Quotes are what pass for evidence in journalism. If you declare at the outset that you will have nothing to say on the record, he will have to dig up a quote elsewhere, and (for better or worse) will probably lose interest in you.
Apart from wishing to be able to recall the imprecise or ill-expressed remark, a religion scholar may have a professional interest in going off the record. If you work on new religious movements, the Roman Catholic hierarchy, or any other group whose cooperation you depend upon, you might wish to supply information or judgments about your subjects that you don’t want them to know comes from you. But just for that reason, a willingness to go on the record at some point is a sign of your good faith. Reporters deal all the time with sources who, for self-serving reasons, are happy to trash their enemies anonymously. The best thing to say to Hardy is: "Tell me when you want something on the record and I’ll let you know if you can use it or I’ll try to come up with another appropriate quote."
It’s easy to be contemptuous of "sound-bite" journalism, but remember, you yourself make use of quotes from secondary sources all the time —sometimes as buttressing authority, sometimes to indicate positions you mean to criticize. The important thing is to represent the source fairly. In journalism, there is a prejudice in favor of the live quotation over the printed word, so you can’t just fax over your best article and let Hardy quote that. Devising — in effect, writing — your quote over the phone with him is a common and perfectly acceptable way of doing business. You can also ask him to call back in five or ten minutes, by which time you will have collected your thoughts and jotted down what you want to say.
Hardy will readily accept your decision to go off the record. He is, however, unlikely to agree to a request that he submit his story for your inspection before it goes to press. This is inconvenient and it smacks of prior restraint under the First Amendment (not literally, to be sure, but many publications forbid it). Make clear what he can use, then be prepared for the chips to fall where they may.
You are ready to begin your account. Let us assume you have never dealt with Hardy before. From his questions, and his answers to yours, you should be able to acquire a sense of how much he knows and what kind of mind he has. A common mistake is to think of journalists as colleagues; after all, they are professional people who write for a living. It is wiser to treat them as students. You do not explain things to a dull sophomore the way you do to a prize Ph.D. candidate. Decide where Hardy falls on the spectrum and adjust your remarks accordingly.
As you proceed, try to determine what he expects will be the point of his story. Newswriting is best thought of as a species of moral discourse trading in simple, conventionalized tales of good and evil. Is Hardy on the track of a story about good works, intolerance, or spiritual revival or decline? Is he seeking to expose a hypocrite or a false prophet — some spiritual leader who appears to be abusing followers "in the name of religion." Is he writing in a friendly way of some eccentric religious group, to show that it too deserves an honored place in the American tapestry of faith? Whatever the case, bear in mind that the embeddedness of such story lines in American culture make them hard to dislodge. Bear in mind, as well, that Hardy may simply be pursuing a thesis predetermined by his editor, or by that editor’s editor. This thesis will often have been reduced to a short synopsis known in the trade as a "budget line," and he knows he’s in trouble if he comes back with something that doesn’t conform to it. You can even ask him if that’s the case, and cluck sympathetically; reporters are not hard to convince of the obtuseness of editors.
Once you know what the story line is, you will be in position to say, "Well, Andy, some people think so, but I’m not one of them." You may even be able to go further and suggest that his approach misses what is really interesting about the subject, which is such-and-such. Don’t, in short, throw in the towel. Just keep reminding yourself that the struggle against conventional habits of thought is always uphill.
Having said your piece and supplied your quotes, ask Hardy when his story is likely to appear. If you don’t regularly see his newspaper, ask if he would mind sending you a copy of the story. You’ve helped him; it would be ungrateful for him to turn you down. Just to make sure, get his phone or fax number so you can request the copy should he (as happens not infrequently) forget to do what he promised.
The story appears. There are two main eventualities:
1. Hardy has spelled your name correctly and quoted you more or less accurately and in context. He has thereby proved himself responsible and educable. By all means drop him a line saying (without perjuring yourself) that you like, appreciate, are impressed by or otherwise approve his efforts. A little encouragement may get him to call back the next time he has a story in your neighborhood, and you will be in a position to enlighten him further. If you do establish a regular working relationship with him, you will be able to relax and not worry so much about being on or off the record. Journalistic relationships, like other relationships, are based on trust; the more reporter and source learn to trust each other, the less they have to fear.
2. Hardy has badly messed up, and done you a disservice in the bargain. He may nonetheless be corrigible, but someone needs to correct him. The best way to do that is not by denouncing his sins in a letter to the editor (though injury, outrage or a need to set the record straight may require that route). Try instead a phone call or personal letter, pointing out where he erred and how you felt misused. What went wrong? Had you failed to express yourself clearly? Believe it or not, most reporters pride themselves on their accuracy, and if not put on the defensive in front of their superiors and the public at large, they will endeavor to do better. Of course, the next time Hardy calls (if there is a next time), you should remind him of what went wrong the first time, and keep your guard up. If despite this you end up misused again, you are entitled never to speak to him again. Just don’t conclude that all reporters will go and do likewise.
There is also a third eventuality that is at once gratifying and annoying. You spend a good deal of time speaking with Hardy, and he succeeds in absorbing your best thinking and incorporating it into his article. However, he fails so much as to mention your name, let alone give credit where credit is due. Here the best recourse may be to meditate upon the anonymous artists of the Middle Ages, who labored not for fame in this world.
Seizing the Initiative
Responding to inquiries and following up on what transpires afterward may be as much as you care to do. But if you have a bee in your bonnet, or are intrepid by nature, you should feel free to take the initiative yourself.
A letter to the editor is the easiest and simplest way of putting an opinion before the general public. Of course, if you desire your letter to appear in the New York Times, you will be vying with hundreds upon hundreds of other letter-writers eager to make their views known in the nation’s newspaper of record. Needless to say, your chances of actually getting a letter into print will be better elsewhere. The most important caveat is to write a letter no longer than what the newspaper in question tends to publish. As difficult as it may be to compress all you have to say into so small a space, you must attempt to do so, for two reasons. First, because a much longer letter is more likely to be discarded; and second, because if it isn’t discarded, it will be the letters editor who decides which parts to excerpt, not you. Short, pithy pieces of prose are the best way to go.
Op-ed pieces offer the opportunity for more extended commentary. Here, it is a good idea to call the editorial page editor first to determine whether a guest column on the subject in question is wanted. If it’s not, this will save you from wasting your time. (Be advised that it is bad form to send the identical column to several newspapers at the same time.) Academics frequently underestimate the challenge of writing an op-ed piece. It ought to be written well enough to interest those who would otherwise not be interested. It should reflect your best thinking on the subject, while assuming little or no prior knowledge on the audience’s part. It must steer clear of jargon and terms of art. And it needs to carry out its mission in 700-1,000 words. In sum, a first-rate op-ed piece is a literary and intellectual achievement of a high order.
A simple and surprisingly little-used option is just to pick up the phone and have a conversation with the religion editor or writer at your local newspaper. You may be concerned that the paper has misrepresented some religious body, has neglected some important subject, or has otherwise fallen short of decent coverage. It should go without saying that calling up and denouncing the party at the other end is unlikely to result in improved performance. You might do well to plan a modest campaign, starting out with a note or phone call complimenting the author on an article. That might be followed up with a call suggesting a story idea or a different tack. Such an approach may seem overly calculating but remember, the cause is honorable. You may eventually get to the point where the editor or reporter will look to you for advice and reaction on any subject falling within your purview. If you enjoy this, and even find yourself expanding your purview by educating yourself on current religious events and trends, so much the better.
Mark Silk holds a Ph.D. in medieval history from Harvard University and is the author of Spiritual Politics: Religion and America Since World War II (Simon & Schuster, 1988) and Unsecular Media: Making News of Religion in America (University of Illinois, 1995). He is also the founding director of The Leonard E. Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life and Professor of Religion in Public Life, Trinity College, 300 Summit Street, Hartford, CT, 06106; and he edits the Center’s magazine, Religion in the News.
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The American Academy of Religion is the major learned society and professional association for teachers and scholars in the field. Dr. Silk produced this guide for the AAR's Committee on the Public Understanding of Religion, of which he is a member. The AAR is located at 825 Houston Mill Road, Atlanta, GA 30329. Phone: (404) 727-3049. Email: email@example.com.
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