From time to time a pastor may have opportunity to interact with the media (I’m thinking especially here of the “old” media – TV, radio, and newspaper journalists). Unfortunately, these opportunities will usually have a negative context; questions about church controversies and scandals, interviews about moral decline and medical ethics, etc. The temptation of most pastors is to ignore such media interest or to run away from it as fast as possible. And that’s understandable. After all, it seems that most journalists are hostile to Christianity: “they’re just out to trip us up,” or “they’ll just twist anything I say.” 

However, despite the usually negative context to media interest, despite their general hostility towards us, and despite their frequent misrepresentation of us, I’d like to encourage pastors (and other well-educated Christians) to engage more with the media, as opportunity arises. I’m afraid that if sane Christian voices remain silent, there’s no shortage of “Christian” ego-maniacs to fill the journalistic void.

One of the most useful days I spent in Seminary was a day of “media training” at a studio in Edinburgh, where a BBC TV journalist came and put a group of us students through the media wringer. After a tutorial from him, we did mock-up TV and radio interviews, followed by a debate, and practice runs at a 3-minute “Thought for the day” slots. Well, it was a bruising day, with some students reduced to tears and others to quivering wrecks. Most of us concluded that the journalist must have been trained by the Gestapo! However, as my own contact with the media increased over the years, I realized more and more that he was the norm, and he was just preparing us for reality.

Many a day I thanked God for the verbal and psychological brutality of that experience. Because for one reason or another I ended up doing a number of newspaper, radio, and TV interviews over the years. As I’d like to see more pastors venturing into this intimidating arena, I’ve listed a few tips I’ve learned along the way, most of them through making painful mistakes myself.

1. Pick your targets
Don’t shoot at every issue but save your bullets for the most important ones. Because so few pastors are willing to speak to the media, those who are willing tend to get contacted quite frequently. Journalists don’t want to have to make ten phone calls when they can make one! The temptation is to speak every time. However, you will rarely have the requisite expertise on every issue, and you may also become known as a “Christian rent-a-quote.”

2. Ask for time
I rarely did an interview right away, but usually asked for at least 30 minutes to get prepared. I often asked for an indication of the kind of questions that were likely to be asked, and then spent some time organizing my thoughts, composing myself, and praying for help to be clear in thought and expression. One journalist told me that I should prepare three points to get across in every interview and try to get them across no matter what questions are asked! Although that’s exactly what politicians do, and I’ve tried to do it sometimes in a limited way, I think we have to be careful that we don’t become “spin-doctors.” But as long as we do answer the question, we can feel free to add some of our own main points too.

3. Keep your target in view
Some journalists will try to draw you into secondary issues that complicate and confuse. Keep the main issue in view and keep returning to it. If you feel that a journalist is simply trying to trip you up, ask him if he’s really interested in providing his hearers or viewers with helpful information or if he’s just in the business of humiliation.

4. Get your facts right
Say nothing that you cannot back up with Scripture or other reliable sources. It can be very tempting to overstate your case, or to just say something that gets you out of a tight corner, especially if you know the interviewer is not able to check what you say there and then. That will almost always backfire, and you’ll lose credibility and future opportunity. If you don’t know the answer to a question, admit it rather than trying to waffle.

5. Be respectful
One of the best ways to lose an argument, especially on TV, is to lose your temper. Some journalists are expert at provoking this. However, on the other hand, if you can maintain a calm and gentle demeanor in the face of hostility or scorn, many listeners and viewers will sympathize with you and give you a better hearing. It’s very easy to get frustrated with journalists. There are some that you may eventually decide are simply too biased to work with. There was one newspaper journalist who I tried to work with, despite the numerous times he misrepresented me. Eventually I started emailing him my answers thinking, “Well, he can’t misquote me with that.” When he still did it, I told him that I could not trust him again. On the other hand, if a journalist gives you fair treatment, follow that up with a note of appreciation.

6. Listen carefully to the question
When you are nervous, you can easily lose concentration. This is especially true if there’s a camera in your face, and a lighting guy and an audio specialist in the background. In these circumstances, it can be very easy to miss or misunderstand the question. Work at shutting out all distractions and really listening to the question. If you miss it ask for it to be repeated. It looks very bad when a journalist says, “Well you didn’t answer my question.”

7. Keep your most important answers short
In fact, keep everything as short as possible. This is not easy for pastors! But however much we detest the soundbite culture, if you want your words reported you have to work really hard at simplifying and summarizing your thoughts into short sentences. Whatever you say will be edited down and news editors will almost always go with the shorter answers. So whatever is your most important point, keep it short or it will not be broadcast. And the more you speak, the more likely it becomes that secondary material will be broadcast or printed instead of your main point. Most TV interviews I did were about 5-7 minutes long in the filming. But usually only 20-30 seconds were broadcast! Radio interviews usually give more time.

8. Don’t insist on the last word
Some Christians seem to think that unless they get the last word, they’ve lost the argument. However, if you’ve stated your case well, you don’t need to have the last word. In a debate setting, don’t interrupt people or make faces as other people are speaking. And be careful what you say when cameras and mics are around. There’s no such thing as “off-camera” today.

9. Learn from your mistakes
As I said before, most of these tips were learned the hard way. Especially at the beginning, you are going to make some verbal blunders. However, as with everything, you will grow in ability and confidence if you persevere. I sometimes asked journalists for a critique afterward – what went well or what could I do or say better. And we have to trust the Lord to use our feeble efforts. Just as the Lord uses less than perfect preaching, so He is also pleased to use our stumbling interviews.

10. Love the journalist
Although they may be enemies of Christ and His people, journalists are also lost sinners who need to hear the Gospel and be saved. Although it’s unlikely to be reported, do try to get the Gospel into your interview. At least the journalist will hear it. Ask if you can send them a book or a sermon. And show an interest in them as people. They are not used to people asking them questions about their job, or their family. In fact they are used to people ignoring them or treating them quite badly. Why not contact some local journalists and ask to meet them. Take the initiative and indicate your willingness to speak or write on certain issues.

One of the greatest benefits of giving media interviews is that the Lord’s people are usually greatly encouraged when they hear a pastor doing his best to speak God’s Word in the public arena. They will pray for you and appreciate your efforts to stand up for truth in a day when lies and falsehood abound.

PS. O yes, and smile more than normal on TV, and talk faster than usual on the radio!

  • William Boekestein

    Great thoughts, David. I would reiterate a point you made near the end. Christian leaders should take the INITIATIVE to contact local radio stations and newspapers for interviews. Many media outlets are eager for fresh, local content. Consider requesting an interview to discuss current events, ministries your church is hosting, a book you’ve written, a conference you are organizing or even a sermon series you are preaching. If you get an interview, be sure to avoid presenting yourself as a salesperson. Try instead to entertain (in the most modest sense of the word) and inform the audience. In other words, make the interview worthwhile for the listener or reader.