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Council reaffirms support of Presbyterian News Service

New guidelines strengthen, clarify editorial freedom, responsibility

September 25, 2009

Louisville

The General Assembly Mission Council (GAMC) reaffirmed its support for the Presbyterian News Service (PNS), calling the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s news agency “a high priority and an essential function” of the PC(USA).

In approving the report of a six-member task force authorized by the council a year ago and appointed by GAMC chair Carol Adcock, the council approved new editorial guidelines that clarify and strengthen the news service’s editorial freedom and responsibility.

The council also said it will “seek to establish a secure stream of funding for PNS if possible” including the possibility of using per capita funds. PNS is currently funded out of the unrestricted General Assembly mission budget.

The Council approved the task force’s report with one negative vote. Clark Cowden, executive presbyter of San Diego Presbytery. “I don’t know anyone in our presbytery who thinks the news service is a high priority. There are many other news sources available now.”

Adcock, an elder from Ft. Worth, Texas, said “the difference is that the Presbyterian News Service has the freedom to report the good and the bad without bias.”

Matthew Schramm, a minister from Bay City, Mich., said that PNS is free to readers, while most other news sources are subscription-based.

The task force report repeatedly affirmed the role of the news service. “PNS offers the most reliable means the church has to get its story out,” the report’s rationale said. “It helps guarantee a sense of integrity about the whole of the mission of the Church as it carries out its work under stated guidelines.” 

And the report also stated: “In a time where resources for ministries are at a premium, we want to be sure that our communication services are preserved, so that we can continue to tell the stories of the church in honest, responsible and faithful ways.”

The new guidelines make it clear that PNS “is expected to maintain an identity separate from any denominational or public relations or other office which serves as spokesperson for the denomination.” It is expected to “operate with editorial freedom and editorial responsibility.”

A key to understanding the role of PNS is to understand that it is accountable to the members of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Structurally, the news service is under the supervision of the GAMC “through the publisher, who is accountable to the GAMC executive director and the GAMC executive committee,” the guidelines state.

But the guidelines make it clear that “editorial control and decision-making is lodged with the editor of the Presbyterian News Service ...” The publisher is Karen Schmidt, deputy executive director of communications and funds development. The editor is the Rev. Jerry Van Marter.

“I appreciate the affirmation of PNS’ editorial freedom while addressing editorial responsibility,” Van Marter said. “It is always difficult to balance our responsibility to our readers, which we’ve always considered primary, with our responsibility to the church and GAMC, and ultimately to Jesus Christ, the head of the church.

“For the task force and the council to understand and appreciate our efforts is gratifying,” Van Marter said, “and, I believe, will help us better serve.”

The guidelines establish an editorial board with three GAMC members selected by the GAMC chair and two “Presbyterians with news expertise” selected by the editor. The role of the board is to “provide advice and counsel with respect to the oversight of the Presbyterian News Service,” the guidelines state. 

Schmidt said after the meeting that she envisions this board meeting only when there is an issue to be dealt with. She also said she envisions her role as publisher as primarily assuring that the guidelines are followed and dealing with methods of communication.  

She said she takes a “hands off” approach to management though she would see a need to work with Van Marter on content when there were particularly controversial or sensitive matters to be reported.  

“I have complete trust in Jerry that he will tell me when a controversial matter is coming up so we can discuss it,” Schmidt said. “What I like about these guidelines is that they make it clear that I as publisher would be working with Jerry in these matters and not against him.”

LaVert Jones, a member of the task force who presented the report to the GAMC Executive Committee, said, “There was a need to delineate and separate the news reporting function and the public relations function. We had extensive discussions of this.”

In the current structure of staff, PNS writes news articles, working closely with communications associates embedded in the GAMC program areas, to tell stories of what the Church’s mission is accomplishing. PNS also covers other agencies of the national church, as well as news from congregations, synods, presbyteries colleges and seminaries and ecumenical bodies to which the PC(USA) relates.

PNS also reprints news stories from Religion News Service and Ecumenical News International, as well as some secular newspapers and other religious news services.

Schmidt said these various sources would be differentiated on the web site by their acronyms in brackets: [PNS] for news articles originating there, [GAMC] for articles generated by the imbedded communicators, [OGA] for articles coming from the Office of the General Assembly, and so on. All will be published through the PNS web site, which is owned by the PC(USA).

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