Inner City Diary
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The pointy end of a reporter's sword...
October 19, 2003
If it’s true that the pen is mightier than the sword, that may explain why some folk are terrified of reporters. Even if the cut isn’t intentional, it bleeds just the same.

In 20 years of living and working in the West End, I’ve talked to a fair number of reporters about a wide variety of issues. They’ve said they like talking with me because I don’t duck issues, I’m not afraid to call a jerk a jerk, and my talk is as plain as my walk.

But there have been times I’ve been tempted to shut up and hide.

If I talk about crime, drug houses and hookers, Pollyannas express resentment that I’ve aired our community’s dirty laundry in public – as if it’s not out in plain view anyway! If I the community’s improving, I’ll get complaints from people still living next to a crack house. If I talk about government, some accuse me of secret political motivations.

I’m also familiar with the sense of vulnerability that comes after sharing my passions and opinions, my hopes and fears with reporters. Reductionist and reactionary packaging of stories doesn’t always inspire confidence in journalism.

Reporters have video, audio or written record of my comments. But they also have their own positions and presuppositions. Add to that the pressure of deadlines for filing stories, and time or space constraints for stories. Then the editors slice and dice the material submitted by reporters, sometimes reducing a lifetime passion to a single out-of-context sentence in the paper or a split-second blip on radio or TV.

I remember my first encounter with the media. Remember the big controversy about the Lord’s Prayer being “taken out” of schools? I was reflecting on the arguments when reporter phoned to ask my opinion on the controversy. I’m sure he just looked under “Baptist” in the phonebook, hoping to find someone willing to articulate the “fundamentalist” perspective on the issue.

I talked with him as I would have talked to any of my friends. “I’m not that upset by it all. I don’t see the sense in forcing non-believers to parrot a prayer to a God they don’t follow.”

I related times when I witnessed the recitation of the Lord’s Prayer by some teachers whose lives and demeanor mocked almost every word of the prayer. I figured that did more harm than good.

I reflected further. “The prayer isn’t some magic formula for good behavior or a mechanism for proselytizing kids to Christianity. If they ‘remove’ the prayer, my kids won’t lose their faith. Besides, real Christians will pray anyway, cause you can’t stop prayer with a bureaucratic or political pronouncement.”

The reporter seemed to be listening carefully, asking me to repeat some of my comments so he could quote me accurately. After about ten minutes of talking, the reporter asked if they could send a photographer to take a picture.

I was pretty excited. I called my parents in New York to tell them I would be in the paper. They wanted me to buy an extra paper and send it to them. I phoned other pastors and friends about my five minutes of fame. They said they’d pick up the paper.

The next morning I rushed to pick up several copies of the Winnipeg Sun. It didn’t take long, however, for my excitement to turn to horror. As I flipped the pages, I saw my picture next to the headline – “Baptist Minister Opposes the Lord’s Prayer.”

The rest of the words were blurred by a headline I was sure would get me excommunicated. I called the editor to complain. “For crying out loud! I’m a minister, so I’m not opposed to the Prayer! I just said it might be best prayed by believers than parroted by atheists.”

I was scared spitless. I phoned every pastor and friend I knew in Winnipeg, asking them not to believe what they read in the paper. I half-wondered if God’s disappointment would come in the form of a well-placed bolt of lighting.

But people understood. Not everyone agreed, but they respected my opinion.

Many years, and hundreds of stories later, I’ve learned one lesson from my dealings with media.

If you’re concerned about looking pretty and playing it safe, then stay inside and don’t talk to anyone – especially not reporters. But if you have a position on an issue or a service for the community, there’s no better way of spreading the word than talking to an interested reporter.

They may not get it perfect, but they usually get it right. And even if they don’t, there’s always tomorrow…
Copyright 2003
Rev. Harry Lehotsky
Rev. Harry Lehotsky is Director of New Life Ministries, a community ministry in the inner-city of Winnipeg, Manitoba.
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