The Media Center for this General Convention is three meeting rooms long and filled with tables equipped with plentiful electrical outlets. There’s good Wifi. A platform upfront is backed by the Episcopal Church flag. The table is set with chairs and mikes for the head of operations, Neva Rae Fox, plus two representatives from the House of Bishops and two from the house of Deputies who report to the media at the end of each business day. There are also media sections in both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies. Credentials are required to enter any media section.
Here’s the strange thing, particularly for anyone who has ever spent any kind of time in a newsroom:
The media room is totally, absolutely quiet. No sound. Computer and iPad keys do not clatter in messy cacophony. Streaming live from the Houses does not impact the look of the room, except it feels somewhat blank. Just one General Convention ago, big screens on both side of the platform showed continuous coverage of the Houses. If the action was heavy, you could count on a clustering of people around the screens to be sure they didn’t miss any action, and to see if it was time to head back to the Press section of the appropriate house.
Lots of changes since I wandered into a General Convention Press Room in Minneapolis in 1976, a neophyte assisting Diocesan Editor Robert Horine. One thing that has NOT changed — that has been consistently effective over the years — has been this communications sharing between Convention Communication and the Media.
Yesterday’s media gathering was a case in point. Representing the house of Bishops were the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniels, Bishop of Pennsylvania, and the Rt Rev. Mark Beckwith, Bishop of Newark. Each spoke about a pivotal part of an important day in the life of this church.
Bishop Daniels spoke about the importance of the liturgy and the work of the United Thank Offering. “You could feel the energy as you walked into the room,” he stated. He also focused on the “powerful, steady, patient leadership” of Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori and the powerful message she had given the whole church in her sermon on one the healing of Jairus’s daughter as an analogy for the church.
“Wake up, church. It’s our call to be God’s presence in the world so that people can see through us what God has in store for them.”
Bishop Beckwith was one of the planners of the Bishops’ March Against Gun Violence that took place early Sunday morning. The passion and energy around this subject were still in his voice as he shared the story of its origins. The planning began in Newark in the winter, with the hope of gathering perhaps 500 marchers. An estimated 1200-1500 joined the bishops as the red-robed figures made their way through the city. Bishop Beckwith heralded the partnership with the Diocese of Utah, who were able to secure 15 different permits necessary to allow the March to take place.
“We are joining God in the neighborhoods, and there lots of work still to be done,” he declared, speaking to the “toxic trinity” of violence, poverty and racism. When asked by media how to help spread the word through Episcopal channels, Bishop Beckwith gave the specific example of using our liturgy creatively to make an impact, such as a Good Friday liturgy in a city moving from “station to station” where shootings had taken place. Several media shared examples of work being done in their own dioceses. The Bishop reminded the group that laws differ from state to state, and while partnership groups and coalitions can be helpful, such differences need to be checked.
The representatives from the House of Deputies were from the Dioceses of Mississippi and Massachusetts, both serving on the Social Justice and US Policy Committee. They are pleased about their work in racial reconciliation, emphasizing that the groundwork is being laid and that it is up to bishops to take a strong lead locally, moving quickly to gather resources and seize this moment to make a difference in the culture.
They also spoke of a “moral crisis” in our culture around incarceration, citing examples of 1 in 9 children who have one parent incarcerated. The deputy from Massachusetts stated that while she had known there were strong feelings around this area of concern in the committee, coming to convention has revealed strong concern across the church, and that makes her hopeful that the work will not stop with the passage of resolutions, but take off from there.
By the time the media conference is over and we exit the building, it is sweeping-up time, and the cleaning crews are at work. Groups are in diocesan caucuses at the hotels surrounding the Salt Palace, hoping for time to grab a bite to eat before whatever evening assignment is on a calendar. For the news folk, there are stories to write, web pages to update, pictures to process, social media to attend to, check-ins with deputations and bishops.
Across the room, I can see veteran diocesan communications officers conferring in low tones. A number of the secular press and magazines who came to cover the election have gone home. Others are still at their stations, looking for stories to tell from their particular perspectives. And there are a variety of perspectives present.
Neva Rae Fox, the Presiding Bishop’s Officer of Public Affairs, I first met sitting at one of these tables in another General Convention newsroom some five or six triennials ago, swearing at malfunctioning laptops and sharing snacks and tidbits of news. We wonder a bit at the quiet of this newsroom. As she leaves to address a communications issue somewhere in this vast complex, I sit for a minute thinking about that small crowded Minneapolis newsroom, with its mimeograph machine, its forever sheets of pastel copy papers falling out of the hastily stuffed wooden mailboxes, with the name of our publications posted above each slot. Telephone communication meant a pay phone call home, and in the case of the Diocese of Lexington, a connection of that call to a tape recorder hooked to the phone at Diocesan House. We felt pretty high tech when we told folks they could call in and access that machine!
Through the 2012 convention, although with decreasing numbers, we made our way to our morning assignments through corridors lined with folks offering print publications and handouts on a variety of subjects, and looked forward to each day’s Convention Daily newspaper. The corridors are strangely devoid of these efforts to inform and influence. A number of trees have probably been saved. A smaller media team is in place, while an increasingly large Media Hub provides much of what is necessary.
It’s been incremental change over the 13 conventions since 1976.
John Carroll, recently deceased former Editor of the Lexington Herald-Leader and the Los Angeles Times, of such changes with his characteristic wisdom and insight at the University of Kentucky College of Communications in the early 2000’s. The changes were for the most part marks of progress, and he was for anything that would improve the state of communication in our country.
The warning call he put out there, loud and clear, was to remember that journalism—good journalism—was built on fact-checking. On having information thoroughly vetted and passed by more than one set of eyes before it went public. It was also built on clear differentiation of factual news and opinion. In the rapid-fire digital world of today, it is far too easy to sit alone in a room and shoot ‘information’ across the country or the world instantaneously, without benefit of editor or fact checker. It’s often hard for the reader at home to know which they’re reading. Fact? Opinion?
Here in the Media Room in Salt Lake City, I field some calls from local press who are having difficulty understanding how and why our polity impacts their deadlines (It has to pass TWO groups? Can you tell me exactly what time that will happen?), and some calls from the Lexington media about same-sex marriages, all while tracking two houses, posting breaking news on the web page, and checking on deputy reporting assignments. I like the fact that I can do it all on my iPad and iPhone, and that when I head out of here, the trek back to the hotel will not include a heavy computer case trundling down the escalators behind me.
I’m thankful for the authenticity and integrity of these end-of-the-day sessions, of our efforts to respond to communicators back home in their dioceses, looking toward this Media team for assistance in telling the story fully and honestly. Whatever the tools for communications at General Conventions of the future, John Carroll’s words should always be the standard.