Got boilerplate? Will cover predictably

If you watched the community memorial service in tornado-ravaged Joplin, Mo., on Sunday, you could not miss the powerful religious messages and imagery.

From the Rev. Aaron Brown’s overtly Christian sermon (“Jesus never promised to protect us from the storms of life”) to Gov. Jay Nixon’s reflections on Joplin’s “God-given mission” in the wake of the destruction, faith and hope were the story of this service.

Unless, of course, you depended on the Washington Post to give you a true picture of what the service sounded — and felt — like.

The top of the Post’s disappointing story on the event:

JOPLIN, Mo. — The survivors of the monster tornado that ravaged this small city gathered to grieve their losses, as President Obama called on them to remember the stories of “strength and courage” that emerged from the storm.

Exactly one week ago, a deadly twister of historic proportions ravaged Joplin, leaving only walls at the high school, stripping pews out of a Baptist church and tossing homes out of their neighborhoods. More than 130 people died, many are still missing and hundreds are homeless.

On Sunday, Obama stood at the front of a college auditorium for a memorial service that marked the devastation and focused on rebuilding this city of 50,000, which looks as though a bulldozer had mowed down a six-mile swath in the center.

“The question that weighs on us at a time like this is why. Why our town? Why our home? Why our son or husband or wife or sister or friend? We do not have the capacity to answer,” Obama said before quoting Scriptures and promising that the country would stand with the city.

That is, of course, the kind of boilerplate coverage of “a community coming together” that most veteran reporters could write in their sleep.

In other words: Yawn.

Contrast the Post’s approach with how the local newspaper — the Joplin Globehandled the exact same portion of Obama’s remarks:

“And as Rev. Brown alluded to, the question that weighs on us at a time like this is: Why? Why our town? Why our home? Why my son, or husband, or wife, or sister, or friend? Why?

“We do not have the capacity to answer. We can’t know when a terrible storm will strike, or where, or the severity of the devastation that it may cause. We can’t know why we’re tested with the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a home where we’ve lived a lifetime.

“These things are beyond our power to control. But that does not mean we are powerless in the face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control. And it’s in these moments, through our actions, that we often see the glimpse of what makes life worth living in the first place.

“In the last week, that’s what Joplin has not just taught Missouri, not just taught America, but has taught the world.’’

Obama continued: “As the governor said, you have shown the world what it means to love thy neighbor. You’ve banded together. You’ve come to each other’s aid. You’ve demonstrated a simple truth: that amid heartbreak and tragedy, no one is a stranger. Everybody is a brother. Everybody is a sister. We can all love one another.’’

As Obama spoke, his comments often were punctuated by applause and standing ovations. It reached its zenith when he talked about standing together in the future.

It certainly sounds like the president listened to the pastor and the governor, even if the Post didn’t.

Obama quoted from 2 Corinthians 4. It would have been interesting if the story had included the actual passage that he referenced.

The pastor and the governor both spoke emotionally from the heart and seemed to resonate with the crowd, who gave Nixon — a Democrat, like the president — a standing ovation. Yet Nixon isn’t quoted at all, and mention of Brown has nothing to do with the main point of his message. It’s not surprising that a national newspaper would focus on the president, but this news report fails to hit the mark concerning what really happened at Joplin’s memorial service.

The Post piece also contains strange sentences such as this:

The auditorium held 1,900 people, but many in this deeply conservative city opted not to come.

Did they opt not to come because they consider Obama a liberal? Did they opt not to come because all their belongings were blown to smithereens and they had nothing to wear? Did they opt not to come because 1,900 seats is not very many in a city with 50,000 grieving people?

What in the world is the point there? What does being “deeply conservative” have to do with grieving a disaster that killed more than 130 people?

It’s not the Post’s coverage was inaccurate. It just wasn’t real.

Print Friendly

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Jerry

    Obama quoted from 2 Corinthians 4. It would have been interesting if the story had included the actual passage that he referenced.

    In a recent topic, I grumped that failure to include religion in one story was part of making it seems that religion was only about wrong doers. In this case, failure to include religion does something similar by making it seem that our President is really not a Christian because he “never” references the Bible. It’s the same problem in two different arenas.

  • Ann

    The auditorium held 1,900 people, but many in this deeply conservative city opted not to come.

    Many articles include a reference to an overflow crowd at the memorial. The city had plans for alternate locations for an overflow crowd.

    President Barack Obama told an overflow crowd at the Joplin Community Memorial Service held at Missouri Southern’s Taylor Performing Arts Center today that the government will not let them down. The Red Cross had TVs for those living in shelters.

  • Mollie


    I’ve made a similar complaint about coverage of President Obama’s religious rhetoric. The media tend to downplay his clearer confessions of faith and trumpet anything less clear.

  • Julia

    There was an implication that “deeply conservative” people are probably not Democrats. My town is also “deeply conservative”, blue collar and heavily union, but the great majority are Democrats.

    The elites don’t get fly-over country.

  • Passing By

    The auditorium held 1,900 people, but many in this deeply conservative city opted not to come.

    That is an odd sentence, the second part unrelated to the first, and, if it’s true the crowd was actually overflow, misleading.

    But then, the WaPo story seems more about Pres. Obama than Joplin. It is a D.C. paper, so that’s not too surprising, I guess.

  • Brett

    One of the boons of the internet is being able to see local coverage of events, written by people who may have been affected themselves by those events or know people who were. To use Bobby’s word, they are real.

    In the meantime, our “papers of record” continue their slow self-inflicted doom with bland boilerplate like the Post story. It’s fascinating — in a train-wreck kind of way — to watch someone Procrustreanize themselves to death.

  • Bobby

    Yeah, bland is a good adjective there.

  • Maureen

    Back in 1974 in the midst of turmoil, Nixon came to Xenia after the tornado, but he didn’t demand that Xenia come to see him. He realized that people were kinda sorta busy, not to mention often being car-less, not to mention that it was important to keep the roads clear.

    A very surreal attempt at reporting the news, to say the least.