By: Michele D. Shoun
Must we be antagonistic toward the news media?
I remember when it was thought to be important for pro-lifers to cultivate relationships with members of the press, for the purposes of getting a fair hearing and telling our side of the story. Then the internet gave everyone the opportunity to have their own website and Facebook page.
We can now control our image, our message, our brand, and we’re doing so much better at communicating with supporters—all very good things—but the downside is that our relationship with the press has deteriorated. Are we reaching beyond friends and followers to the larger culture?
We seem to have lost an important media-relations skill, and in its place we resort to complaining—accusing members of the media of getting the story wrong, or outright lying about us.
Must it be this way? Can we do better? If so, how?
First, I think we need to see reporters and their editors as people. We’re good at talking to clients from all walks of life and belief systems. Why can’t we just as carefully and patiently work to persuade members of the media to take a different view of abortion?
Not only are they people made in God’s image, but they are people with press credentials who need our help. They need good sources. They need to meet deadlines. They need to present all sides of an argument. Our attitude toward them will improve if we approach them from the standpoint that we can help them do their job.
And they need to know you! Pregnancy care centers, and the selfless people who work in them, are by their very existence the greatest rebuttal to most of the arguments that abortion advocates wield against pro-life laws. Here’s an example of how Flint Crisis Pregnancy Services tied its ministry to the national debate over “extreme” abortion bans when a reporter from the local NBC affiliate came calling: Local pregnancy center shares its thoughts on abortion.
Does your local newspaper or radio station know they can call you for comments on national issues? Do they even know your center exists? If your center’s leadership has changed hands in the past few years, maybe it’s time to introduce yourself and demonstrate that you’re a friendly voice on the phone.
My experience with the press
Once upon a time, I cultivated a relationship with the religion editor for The Grand Rapids Press, or maybe he cultivated the relationship with me. Either way, I recall that Ed would contact me by phone whenever I wrote a letter to the editor about abortion or other life issues. He'd verify whether it was, indeed, my work, and whether I intended for it to be published. And then, as a result of those conversations, he began asking for my comment on other related issues as they arose.
Yes, I was nervous talking to the media, but it turned out not to be as scary as anticipated. Eventually Ed interviewed me for an article he did on our rescue efforts at the local abortion clinic, and I felt his reporting was very fair.
In fact, I made sure to let him know I thought he did a good job. I was respectful toward him, and he toward me. Maintaining neutrality, I never knew whether he was "on our side" or not. He wrote about the "other side" just as carefully and, I'm sure, cultivated relationships with members of the pro-choice community as well. He probably felt he should be fair because he had to "live with" both sides in the community.
He was a good neighbor, and I think I was too. If I didn’t have an answer, I wasn’t afraid to say, “I don’t know.” I offered to help him find other good sources. It was a good, mutually beneficial relationship that began with letters to the editor.
Letters to the editor
Perhaps letter writing is a lost art, but it's still one way to build (or rebuild) relations with the media. Not only is it a good way to keep the pro-life cause and our arguments against abortion before more than just supporters and friends on social media, but it's also a way to help members of the news media to get to know both you and your ministry.
Writing a letter to the editor is not the same as leaving a comment after an online article. It’s much better! When you leave a comment, an editor or reporter won’t be able to tell you’re a member of the local community, unless you mention it. And they may never read your carefully worded comment because prior comments from others have gone off topic and devolved into a shouting match.
Instead, reach out to the author if you can. His or her byline may link to an email address, or be listed elsewhere on the media website. If the author is on Twitter or Facebook, send a private message.
Remember, when you write that letter to the editor, be respectful, factual, and helpful. Be brief and to the point. Don't call people names, doing to them rhetorically what is actually being done to the unborn (James 3:8-10).
To the best of your ability, offer facts and information that an editor will respect and a reporter will be able to use as sources: other major news sources, government websites, and peer-reviewed journals. Do your homework.
Other tips are available in this Wikihow: How to Write Letters to the Editor
Leaders of pro-life organizations need to get back into the somewhat old-school habit of writing press releases. They can be used to let the media know about your center’s upcoming events, a new staff member or project, your perspective on current issues making news. They also allow you to frame the story your way. Offer to speak with reporters in-depth, and be ready for follow-up interviews.
If our goal in media relations is to be helpful, then we’ll seek to understand who their audience is and what are a reporter's and editor's needs. We can then anticipate their questions, and prepare our responses.
This ATC article from 2001 has practical tips for writing press releases: DIY Press Releases by Marjori Masitto Krause. I learned something from this bit of advice:
Email is the best way to send press releases. Do not send the release as an attachment only. Paste the release directly into the body of the e-mail also so that recipients will not become frustrated if they are not able to open the attachment.
Also in the ATC archives is an excellent article by Laura Glessner called Media Matters. Written in 2003, it’s still relevant and considers the potential for hostile interviews. Her advice includes the following:
- Designate one person (most likely the center's chief executive) to handle all press releases and inquiries
- Approach media in a friendly manner
- Develop sound-bytes—short, catchy phrases that encompass your center's vision, mission, and services
- Tie your center to national events or stories whenever possible
- Provide information in a timely manner, with the reporter's deadlines in mind
Let this be your refresher course on dealing the media. We don’t have to be antagonists! At the same time, be aware that editors may give reporters guidance such as this, from NPR.
We may no longer rely on them for much of our communication, but it's still important to maintain peace with various local media "as much as it depends on me" (Romans 12:18).