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Commentary: Why the church needs a news service

 
Portrait of Vicki Brown, news editor at United Methodist Communications. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Photo of Vicki Brown by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

In a time when The United Methodist Church is struggling with deep divisions over homosexuality, some members may question why the denomination needs a news service — especially one that writes about these disagreements and divisions.

The church needs a news service for the same reasons that the world needs journalists. We are part of the church, just as secular journalists are members of their community. As journalists, we stand apart and cover the news objectively — explaining, providing background, condensing, verifying and turning the vast flood of information that is available into a readable narrative. Much of that information comes from bishops, clergy, advocacy groups and other sources who have a specific point of view or even an agenda to push.

Do we care about the unity and survival of the church? Of course we do. We believe the best decisions are made by those who are fully informed — about the good, the bad and the ugly. We believe press releases put forth a particular persuasive point of view. A news story, feature or analysis piece is developed with a specific focus but includes different voices, experiences and information that give a fuller picture of the topic.

When the White House — be it that of President Donald Trump or former President Barack Obama — puts out a press release, readers are fair in assuming they are only getting the information that supports the president’s position. The Affordable Care Act and the proposed replacement are good examples of legislation that needed further explanation. Those who might want a fuller explanation or other points of view to consider will look to news outlets.

Just as secular journalists strive to help citizens understand their rights and hold public officials accountable, religion journalists play the same role. We push for open meetings at the Council of Bishops and other leadership organizations in the church, and we strive to provide United Methodists with all the information they need to make decisions about the future of the denomination.

Some readers see us as having an agenda — liberal or conservative, depending on the reader’s viewpoint. Or, United Methodists see us as the public relations arm for the Council of Bishops and other official agencies of the church.

Neither is true.

The news service, like its parent organization United Methodist Communications, receives funding from the church through the World Service apportionment. But by the Book of Discipline (Paragraph 1806.1), the official newsgathering and distributing agency for the church and general agencies is independent.

“In keeping with the historic freedom of the press, it shall operate with editorial freedom as an independent news bureau serving all segments of church life and society, making available to both religious and public news media information concerning the church at large,” according to Paragraph 1806.1 in the Book of Discipline.

If United Methodists see the information about the Way Forward Commission as “spin,” will they trust the proposals put forward to maintain unity?

The divisions in the church over homosexuality somewhat mirror the political divisions in the United States. And, in politics and the church, the solutions are too complex for a 280-character tweet, a 30-second video or a Facebook post.

The people in our pulpits and pews deserve to know the full story. United Methodists especially need to hear from those they disagree with in hopes that faith can find a way to bring them together in love.

The denomination also needs to present an example to the world of Christians behaving in an open and honest fashion. In a world of social media, the struggles of the church will be made public by the participants, whether church leaders try to censor it or not. UMNS can tell the story of those struggles completely and fairly.

We fact check. That means we read the documents, we check the Book of Discipline paragraphs, we check figures against other sources. We are especially careful about any use of social media content. And, we would not publish a story about a controversial subject or a complex issue with a single source.

We get many interesting tips and rumors about what is happening in the church. We don’t report those without verifying the accuracy of the information with reliable sources.

News Service has a history of reporting the struggles of the denomination, such as the end of the segregated Central Jurisdiction in the United States. Having a newsgathering agency that operates with editorial autonomy has built credibility for the church over the years, both with members and secular media.

Most of the news we provide focuses on the work of the church and how individual United Methodists and congregations are living their faith. Out of 400 stories that we produced in 2017, only 10 percent dealt with sexuality, and that percentage included coverage of the Judicial Council, Commission on a Way Forward, the Wesleyan Covenant Association and the Uniting Methodists.

UMNS doesn’t just report the facts. We aim to report the truth about the facts.

Brown is editor of United Methodist News Service. Contact her at 615-742-5400 or newsdesk@umcom.org. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests