HOW MINISTERS SHOULD HANDLE THE MEDIA
BY PHIL COOKE AND NORM MINTLE
With the advent of global communications technology, “local problems” aren’t just local anymore. When a crisis happens at a small-town high school, it’s reported in the most remote corners of the globe as quickly as word travels across the street. And as society grows more complex, news organizations are finding that simply reporting the news is no longer enough. Today’s audiences want answers to the “why” of a story as much as the who, what, where and when.
To find those answers, reporters are increasingly using sources from the church–pastors, church leaders and other Christians who can give insight into the unexplainable events that often surround a crisis. But when those reporters descend on the doorsteps of many local pastors, too often they find unprepared “religious types” who appear hostile and certainly aren’t trained to deal with the media. Consequently the answers they get–and often print or broadcast–are confusing, difficult to understand and outside a contextualized, contemporary culture vernacular.
The Bible calls us to be accountable and able to defend our faith, but when faced with TV cameras, lights and “sound bites,” it’s
nearly impossible to express our beliefs in articulate and convincing ways. So we asked Phil Cooke, a successful Christian television producer and director in Burbank, California, and Norm Mintle, a highly respected producer and programming consultant in Chesapeake, Virginia, to give us insight into how pastors can better handle these moments of televised crises.
Ministries TODAY: Why should local pastors and church leaders be concerned about a media response to these crisis issues?
Phil Cooke: More and more, secular reporters are realizing the need to get a spiritual perspective on many issues they confront.
Although there are many wonderful Christian news people out there, let’s face it, most aren’t. And when it comes to spiritual issues, they simply aren’t equipped to handle them.
Norm Mintle: Take the recent high school shootings for instance. Many of these students were from small towns where Christianity is an important part of their daily lives. When the reporters saw that, they began looking to Christian leaders and pastors for answers and insight.
Phil Cooke: There’s another important point, too. With the massive proliferation of media outlets in our country (and world)
today, with all the new cable news operations and direct broadcast satellite services, there is a greater hunger for a more in-depth look at these human tragedy stories. More news channels need stories, creating a need for more reporters to find the stories and report the answers, and a greater menu of available news programs for viewers to watch. It all adds up to a greater hunger for the new and unique angle–a competitive edge over their rivals.
Norm Mintle: Exactly–which is all the more reason Christian leaders have a tremendous opportunity they never knew before. In the “old days” when there were only three networks and four local TV stations in a city, the local news director had a virtual monopoly on the decisions of what and who to cover, and what not to cover. Typically in those days, Christians and their viewpoints were totally ignored at best, ridiculed as “out of touch” more often.
Ministries TODAY: But is this true just of the pastors of the particular town in which a shooting, for example, occurs?
Phil Cooke: Absolutely not. I remember when we experienced the so-called “televangelist scandals” in the ’80s. The local reporters in cities and towns across America looked for the local angle within their own communities, and they went to the local churches to find them.
Norm Mintle: It’s the same with hurricanes, tornadoes or teen violence. Every newspaper, television or radio outlet wants to
“personalize” the national story to their locale. During the recent spate of teen murders, news directors in every small to medium-sized market have looked for clues of how a similar high school massacre might occur there. What a perfect opportunity for a pastor to speak hope and peace into a not-yet-chaotic situation.
Ministries To day: So what can pastors do to be ready both “in and out of season”?
Norm Mintle: First of all, understand that the reporter probably won’t be a Christian and will have little knowledge of Christian
issues–or more importantly, Christian “language.” That doesn’t mean you should be hostile toward the “pagan, but rather, what a perfect example to show the amazing grace of our Lord.
Second, this may be the greatest moment of opportunity your local ministry will have ever had to share the true power of the gospel message–a message of peace, of hope, of God’s intervening power in the midst of strife, chaos and heartache.
Phil Cooke: Recently I produced several television commercials for a major Christian denomination that have received great interest from the mainstream press because of the contemporary and compelling way they present the faith. I’ve been interviewed by major national newspapers, magazines and television networks, and not one reporter yet has been a Christian. But because I treated them graciously and with respect, without exception, they all gave my commercials tremendous reviews.
Norm Mintle; It’s a matter of respect, isn’t it, Phil? You were shown respect by the so-called secular press, even though they were
interviewing you on a religious topic, precisely because you showed professionalism and mutual respect to the reporter. This brings up an important point when it comes to Christians dealing with the media: As Christians, we should always treat the media with respect–but a large part of that respect is communicating in a language they understand.
Too often we are guilty of speaking insider’s language, the words of the church, you know, “Christianese.” And then we look down on the “outsiders” who simply don’t begin to understand what we’re talking about. Research shows that today almost 50 percent of all adults never had any type of formal religious training as children. In contrast, back in 1952 only 6 percent of American adults had received no formal religious training as children.
Phil Cooke: We have a huge communication gap here, don’t we? For every two people who enter your church sanctuary, one doesn’t have a clue. He doesn’t understand the “foreign” language we all take for granted, you know, words like Hymnal, ” “narthex, ” “sanctification,” “the Lord’s Supper.”
It’s the same when you deal with the media, but the percentages probably jump even higher than 50 percent. If you talk “church talk” and do not culturally contextualize what you mean, the reporter won’t get it and consequently probably won’t use you or your sound bite–when that may have been the most important part of your answer. Unused communication is no communication at all!
Norm Mintle: One last thought on this matter: Don’t look at the secular media as the enemy–some monolithic army out to destroy our faith. Rather look at them in the light of normal people who haven’t yet encountered the life- changing power of God’s grace as we have. You just may be, at this crisis moment, the Holy Spirit’s intended “bait” that the Spirit will use to draw that reporter, and by potential extension, his audience to the feet of the Savior. When we speak with respect–and the love of Jesus–in a language they understand, it’s amazing how sympathetic they can be, even when they don’t yet share our values.
Ministries TODAY: Nice sermon, guys. Thanks. Now what about the actual interview process itself?
Phil Cooke: First of all, don’t be thrown or befuddled by the equipment. When the reporter brings in a television camera, lights and microphones, don’t let them be distracting. Just concentrate on your conversation with the interviewer. And speaking of distractions, if you happen to be interviewed at the scene of the crisis, one of the most important considerations for you is composure. All around you there may be chaos, screaming, rushing ambulances or firefighters. But the most important thing you’re about to do is communicate calmly and cogently despite the confusion.
Norm Mintle: Right. You need to understand the value of the “sound bite.” Because of the nature of most television news programs, they use little short “clips” or “bites” of your longer responses to questions. So the most effective answers are short and to the point. As much as possible, think through what you want to say ahead of time. Do your homework. Don’t stumble or grope for answers.
At the same time, don’t be shallow or trivial, and make sure you’re not so consumed with getting your message across that you fail
to adequately answer the question. Be confident and authoritative. It’s expected that you will be.
Phil Cooke: One more technical consideration during an interview: When your taped responses are reviewed in an editing suite back at the station, the reporter is going to look for natural pauses in your delivery in which to make his edit points. Long, drawn-out and wordy answers–no matter how well-phrased you may think they were and how full of great sagacity–will find their way to the proverbial “editing floor.” If you can think to pause, however briefly, between thoughts–or even at the very point you want included in the final story–you’ll have a much better chance of actually seeing and hearing that point in the final story.
Ministries TODAY: But what if the reporter tries one of those dreaded “trick” questions?
Norm Mintle: You mean like this one? No, actually it’s highly doubtful that in a stress-filled environment of a disaster will a reporter try to trip up a pastor or Christian leader. It doesn’t make sense. The reporter has a very important job to do, a tremendous deadline to meet, and would undoubtedly be severely reprimanded back at the news room if that were to occur.
Phil Cooke: That’s true. But we must admit that many times it seems like a reporter already has a built-in bias against Christians
and the church. Unfortunately, we’ve too often brought that type of preconception on ourselves.
Think back to the Bakker and Swaggart media events. Deflections, obfuscation and denials were the order of the day Cynical and skeptical media personnel needed little more encouragement than a divided and chaos-ridden church gave them to believe what they already believed was true. Our testimony suffers when we miss God’s own concern for truth.
Ministries TODAY: Now here’s a tough one. Realizing that this might be my “big opportunity” on local TV, should I try to squeeze in an announcement about our schedule of services or the upcoming revival?
Phil Cooke: The fact is that a relationship with your local newspaper or television and radio outlets are of great value to your
overall media-impact plan. But not now. Use all the God-given wisdom you possess. If the Lord has blessed you with this amazing opportunity to speak into a crisis situation His love and peace, He’ll also bless your ministry because of your obedience.
Norm Mintle: Don’t use an interview to be self-serving. You’d really blow the whole thing if you appeared so self-serving as to turn
a disaster interview into a commercial for your next Christmas pageant. Phil’s right. Just work with what God has placed in your hands. This might be the start of a newfound relationship with that reporter or news director–a relationship that can bear greater fruit in the future if you lovingly cultivate it.
Phil Cooke: Become friends. Take them to lunch. Since they now consider you a religious “expert,” offer to help them again in the
future, or provide insider’s research on a future subject or story. When they realize that you are genuine in your concern for them, and they understand you’re trustworthy, you’ll be amazed how often they’ll come to you for advice and quotes.
THE ABOVE MATERIAL WAS PUBLISHED BY MINISTRIES TODAY, SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER, 1998, PAGES 44-46.
THIS MATERIAL IS COPYRIGHTED AND MAY BE USED FOR STUDY & RESEARCH PURPOSES ONLY.