To report or to promote?
That is the question the Presbyterian News Service (PNS) is currently facing. What, exactly, is the difference between denominational journalism and public relations? A task force of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s General Assembly Council is debating that issue as it considers the future of the denomination’s official news agency.
The task force, appointed by GAC chair Carol Adcock of Fort Worth, TX, earlier this spring, met for the first time May 11 via telephone conference call to study the role and future of PNS. Task force members shared their opinions and concerns on this matter and contemplated ways to distinguish PNS’ duty to the PC(USA).
Does PNS remain an independent news media source, reporting on all of the ins and outs of the politics and events of the church, or does it serve as the “good face” of the denomination?
John Bolt, stated clerk of West Virginia Presbytery and a former Associated Press reporter for 23 years, was one of six task force members participating in the call. He argued that PNS has an obligation to the church and its readers that is much deeper than that of just acting as the PC(USA)’s public relations arm.
“If we’re really going to polish the Presbyterian brand …we need to be more than just public relations,” Bolt said. “We need some sort of credible, objective voice.”
Bolt stated his opinions to his Presbyterian peers, explaining what he believes the role of PNS is and what it should strive to be.
“To me, the idea is to report to the church about the church in headline fashion,” Bolt said. “We have to do it with integrity and in a trustworthy way, and the news service so far has been able to maintain that trustworthiness.”
Rick Ufford-Chase, moderator of the 216th General Assembly and another task force member participating in the call, said there is “a crying need” for the Presbyterian Church to find a balance and that PNS is responsible for meeting it.
Finding a clear and concise compromise between promoting and reporting the happenings of the church, however, proves to be a tricky task. Karen Schmidt, deputy executive director for communications and funds development for the GAC, said she is “caught between a rock and a hard place’ when it comes to reporting completely independently from the church.
Schmidt, who provided staff support to the task force, said she wishes to provide a positive yet objective representation and claimed the unbiased PNS makes that goal difficult to accomplish. “I’m not sure you can wear both hats,” said Schmidt.
She continued to press the case that PNS is a “mission” of the church and that it can “by no means be free and independent of the church.”
Other members of the task force who contributed to the discussion were Robert Maggs, president and CEO of the PC(USA)’s Board of Pensions; the Rev. Judy Fletcher, synod executive for the Synod of the Sun; Carolyn McLarnan of Hattiesburg, MS and a GAC member and chair of the task force; and LaVert Jones, a GAC member from Roswell, GA.
The task force, which is scheduled to report to the GAC in September, meets again via conference call on June 22.