Bridging the trust gap

Journalists and religious leaders often misunderstand each other for myriad reasons — but mutual respect goes a long way.

parkerBy Michael Parker

For 28 years, I reported for the San Antonio Express/News, the largest daily newspaper in South Texas. I met many religious leaders who believed that the news media either were bent on making religion look bad or were just plain incompetent.

Few people are trained specifically to cover religion — journalism schools assume that the basic tools for good reporting apply everywhere, as they should — but religion has not been seen as a glamorous or important beat at many papers, and it’s fairly complicated because of the sheer multiplicity of religions.

I wanted to be known as a good reporter who knew his subject and was both fair and accurate. That is, I wanted to serve readers by bridging gaps and helping them understand the perspectives of others. I am a Catholic, and San Antonio is a very Catholic city, but a very diverse city with a lot of activities in many denominations. I strove to learn all I could about those religious traditions I wasn’t familiar with.

Good reporters are expected to maintain a healthy distance from their subjects — their first duty being to readers — but I wanted to build mutual respect and trust. I wanted to understand their attitudes and portray them accurately. Many were surprised at how accurate I was, and reciprocated that trust.

But some were suspicious. Once I covered a gathering of Southern Baptist pastors. One told me, “The secular media just don’t understand Southern Baptists. Are you a Southern Baptist?” Someone told him, “No. He’s a Roman Catholic!” The inquiring pastor was aghast. Covering his face, he exclaimed, “You couldn’t possibly understand anything about Southern Baptists!”

Rather than being offended, I sympathized with this remark. I knew that Baptists — like Catholics and others — often feel misunderstood and misrepresented in the secular media. I decided to try to understand his faith from his perspective, putting aside any possible preconceptions I might have had. In response, I just smiled and suggested he wait until he’d seen my article and he might be surprised. Later the host of that meeting said many pastors had sent him clippings of my article, with compliments on my fairness and accuracy. The one who had questioned my ability had been very surprised.

The next year, the Southern Baptist Convention had its national meeting in my hometown. At the time they were struggling over biblical interpretation and denominational politics. My newspaper and I went to great lengths to balance our coverage of it — even measuring the number of column-inches given to each side to ensure that it was even.

Three years later, I received a prestigious award from the Baptist state convention. I was the first Catholic ever to get that award in its 25-year history.

On another occasion, a preacher complained that our religion page featured an article about a non-traditional religion. His own church had advertised on the religion page for many years, and he didn’t see why an article like that should be on the same page with Christian news — if it should be in the paper at all. He was thinking of cancelling the ad.

For me this was an opportunity to love him. I understood his discomfort with a story on a non-traditional religion. I wrote and thanked him for sharing his views and giving me a chance to respond. I explained why a newspaper in a diverse metropolitan area had to include non-traditional religions in our coverage.

Their members read the newspaper too, and people of different faiths need to know about one another if we’re to be a community.

My letter completely changed his attitude. He responded graciously and said he hadn’t really expected to get a response. He was impressed that I had listened to his concern and taken the time to write. That had made all the difference.


Reprinted with permission from Living City Magazine – Oct 2013.