Letters from the grieving Amish

Amish2The Amish are not known as easy interviews. In fact, many do not like to talk to journalists at all and, when they talk, they often speak German.

So Baltimore Sun reporter Julie Scharper’s feature story about the one-year anniversary of the Nickel Mines, Pa., school massacre is fascinating on several levels. For one thing, it is full of the kind of simple, clear, unaffected words that one would expect from Amish believers. Thus, the headline: “Sharing their grief: In plain words, Amish detail a year spent mourning, healing after shootings at school.”

So how did she get them to talk?

She didn’t. This is one case where the reporter found another door into this story — an old-fashioned, ink-and-paper door.

As members of a faith that prizes humility and modesty, the victims’ families and friends have turned their backs on the public grieving that is so much a part of modern American culture, choosing instead to heal their wounds in private. School is closed today, and last week the Amish weren’t discussing the anniversary with strangers.

But over the past year, members of the community have shared their grief on paper. In scores of letters to the weekly Amish newspaper Die Botschaft they have relived that day and reflected on the struggles of the past 12 months. Interspersed with news of the weather and crops, the plain-worded letters tell of piercing grief, small triumphs and deeply rooted faith. Taken together, they provide unique insight into the ways that residents of Nickel Mines have mourned their daughters while summoning the spiritual strength to move forward.

Here is some additional information on the remarkable source that made this story possible:

Die Botschaft — “The Message” in German — compiles the letters in an 80-page newspaper, relying on dispatches from several hundred “scribes” in Amish districts throughout the United States, Canada and Mexico. The correspondents’ accounts are arranged in neat columns without pictures.

Before the tragedy, the letters from here skipped through news from the church districts — religious services, visitors, births, marriages and the occasional notable meal — while weaving in humorous anecdotes. After the shootings, they grew more personal.

In one, [Enos] Miller described being at his job the morning of Oct. 2 when he saw helicopters hovering near his home. He called a neighbor, who told him about the shooting. His first thought: “Oh, no, the two granddaughters,” he wrote in the understated prose that characterizes the newspaper. “After I hung up, the strength seemed to drain from me. But somehow I could keep going.”

capt sge udo87 051006134915 photo00 photo default 512x349As you would expect, the article contains quite a bit of information about the Amish community’s warm, forgiving treatment of the family of Charles Carl Roberts IV, the gunman whose rampage ripped at the young heart of their community.

But the newspaper letters also offered insights into the lives of the children who survived, which is a side of this drama previously kept private. Four of the girls were quickly back in school, even as they continued to recover from their wounds. But that is not the end of that story:

A fifth girl, 7-year-old Rosanna King, suffered a serious brain injury. She was removed from life support within two days of the shooting and was expected to die.

Instead, she has become a living miracle for the Amish, who found inspiration as she progressed from bed to wheelchair and began to recognize family members and laugh out loud. But progress has been slow. …

One writer wondered whether the community could do more for her.

“Maybe we are not praying hard enough,” wrote Yonie Esh of Georgetown. He seemed to hesitate at the idea. “But then again we want to say, ‘Thy will be done.’ If I write something that I should not, I do apologize. I certainly do not want to offend anyone.”

When Rosanna returned to church for the first time after the shooting, the moment generated considerable excitement.

“She doesn’t talk … but so precious to have her around,” wrote Susanna Stoltzfus.

This is a very simple story, based on these letter from inside a community that prefers to keep its sorrows and joys private. The simplicity is what makes the story so powerful.

Life continues in Nickel Mines. It was fortunate that the Sun found a way to take readers inside that story, without violating the lives of those who are living it. This is must reading.

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Breaking: Mitt Romney is a Mormon

NewseekOct8I approached Newsweek‘s cover story on Mitt Romney with dread. Would this be still another media demand that Romney deliver a J.F.K. speech that promises to build an unscalable wall between his faith and his public service?

The good news is that the 5,100-word article by Jonathan Darman and Lisa Miller is better than that. J.F.K. is not invoked at all, but the article returns often to the theme of Romney’s reluctance to discuss his faith on reporters’ terms.

The article’s lede is a good illustration of this. The reporters have found Romney’s childhood meetinghouse (the term used by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints), and they inform Romney that it’s still a church. Romney doesn’t seem to care much, and I’m not sure anybody should blame him. His former meetinghouse is now the Unity Church in Pontiac. The LDS and Unity are both churches, of course, but their theology has about as much in common as the carbon footprints of a Toyota Prius and a Hummer.

OK, Romney doesn’t offer any misty water-colored memories of his childhood in that meetinghouse. So what?

I think the reporters are trying too hard to argue that Romney’s faith will be a stumbling block. By Newsweek‘s telling, Romney is in trouble either because he doesn’t love his faith enough to talk about it freely or he takes his faith so seriously that he’s a possible extremist.

Darman and Miller write:

Mindful of the sway of evangelical Christians over the GOP base, he has positioned himself as the candidate with conservative principles and strong faith, even adopting evangelical language in calling Jesus Christ his “personal savior” (vernacular not generally used by members of the Mormon Church).

Really? This would be news to LDS missionaries who use that same language when visiting in the homes of evangelical Protestants, or to LDS theologians such as Robert Millet who have engaged in a years-long dialogue with evangelical theologians.

Giving a broad picture of LDS life, Darman and Miller write:

At 12, boys become “deacons”; they prepare and eventually serve the sacramental bread and water at worship services. Around that time, children can also do “proxy baptisms,” or baptisms for the dead. (These are mostly done on behalf of Mormons’ own ancestors, but they became controversial about a decade ago when it was discovered that they were also being done for dead Holocaust victims. The church ceased the practice, wherever possible.)

Here we have the imprecise they, which leaves readers unclear on what the article means by “the practice.” This statement from the church’s headquarters in Salt Lake City suggests that proxy baptisms continue, but that the church has urged members to “submit for temple ordinances the names of their own ancestors, and not the names of deceased celebrities or Jewish [H]olocaust victims.”

Here is Newsweek‘s description of how Boston media handled Romney’s race against Sen. Ted Kennedy:

From the start, Romney made clear that questions about his faith were out of bounds, and from the start, his faith was all anyone wanted to talk about. The Boston papers were filled with tales of his secret Mormon life. As bishop, he’d counseled a Mormon woman not to have an abortion. As stake president, he’d called homosexuality “perverse.” (Romney denied making this comment.) The tales fed the notion that there was something sinister inside Romney, that beneath the mild-mannered moderate lurked a secret extremist.

Replace the words Mormon with evangelical and stake president with elder or pastor and you could have a story about thousands of church leaders, at least regarding pastoral counseling about abortion. Thousands of church leaders also stand on the conservative side of disputes about homosexuality, and their argument usually is more sophisticated than using the word perverse — which, as Newsweek reports, Romney denies saying.

Otherwise, Newsweek‘s article is an admirable example of how to write a lengthy and informative profile without much obvious cooperation by the subject. One fine paragraph tells of how Romney’s father honored the faith of Tito Cortella, an exchange student who lived with the family when Mitt was about 12:

George also enforced his belief that his Mormon children had to be integrated into the world and respect people of different backgrounds. Cortella remembers his Roman Catholic mother’s being apprehensive about sending her son into the bosom of a Mormon family — until the first Sunday he spent at the Romneys’ house. “It was about 11 o’clock in the morning,” Cortella says. “Mr. Romney said, ‘You come with me.’ He took me to the Catholic church not far from the house. He said, ‘From now on, every Sunday you will come to this church,’ and he was getting mad if I was not going.” In an even starker example of the senior Romney’s live-and-let-live policy, Cortella says the Romneys allowed him to smoke cigarettes in his room.

Newsweek cites polls indicating voters’ lingering misgivings about electing a member of the LDS as president — which leaves me eager for the primaries to begin. If Romney were to win his party’s nomination, I think Republicans’ pragmatism may well override their doubts about voting for him in the general election. If Romney does not win the party’s nomination, I suspect the reasons will be far more complex than voters’ suspicions about his faith.

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Giving religion news a closer look

religionDid it seem like there were no religion news stories last week? Maybe it was because all the religion reporters and writers were partying at the Alamo at the Religion Newswriters Association’s annual convention. Gary Stern blogged about it last week and even posted a video blog upon his return. Unfortunately the report included no funny stories or gossip about other religion beat professionals.

J. Michael Parker, the Express-News religion writer, got a story out of the convention, focusing on the decline of the religion news section at some papers:

Chris Quinn, religion and philanthropy reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, said he doesn’t miss the religion section.

“Why should we ‘ghettoize’ religion news in a Saturday section? The trick for religion writers is to make others in the newsroom understand the importance of religion and why it should be on Page One,” Quinn said.

But he contends that the public largely misunderstands the secular media’s watchdog role in covering institutions, including religious ones.

“I think many would like us to be cheerleaders for them. They’re used to the religious media writing about them. Religious media are less likely to ask religious leaders questions about things that might not present them in a favorable light.”

But Kelly McBride, a former religion writer in Spokane, Wash., and now ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, a journalism training center in St. Petersburg, Fla., believes that the average person reading a daily newspaper “is likely to judge religion reporting as credible if he sees his belief system authentically represented.”

“But he’s likely to dismiss it if he sees something he knows to be erroneous,” she added.

I love that quote from Quinn about the media’s watchdog role. It’s funny to me how reporters consider their role to be one of asking hard questions of institutional leaders — all institutions, that is, except for . . . the media and friends. I exaggerate, of course, but we see it all the time. Think of the ease with which The New York Times exonerated itself in a recent scandal and consider whether it would be so charitable to a religious institution, business or member of Congress.

Each year the association awards monetary prizes for excellence in religion reporting in the mainstream media. This year’s winners:

Templeton Religion Reporter of the Year
Sandi Dolbee of The San Diego Union-Tribune. From a feature on a team of young Mormons recreating a pioneer mountain trek, to a moving profile of a local National Guard chaplain whose faith was challenged in Iraq, judges said her stories showed a “knack for finding the heart of a story and presenting it in a way that brings difficult and complex subjects to life.”

Supple Religion Writer of the Year
Eric Gorski for work he did at The Denver Post. “This writer’s package had it all: a hard-hitting investigation of Heritage Christian Center, strong examination of the Ted Haggard scandal that was both local and national in scope, and a good sampling of other religious events in the community,” the judges wrote.

Other winners include David O’Reilly and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Larissa Theodore-Dudkiewicz of the Beaver County (Pa.) Times, G. Jeffrey MacDonald of The Christian Science Monitor, The Mobile Press Register, The Salt Lake Tribune, PBS’ NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Rachael Martin of NPR.

Congratulations to everyone!

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Clarence Thomas with no soul

Clarence ThomasYet another high-publicity autobiography is out, and once again the media are giving short shrift to religious aspects in the author’s life.

The media’s coverage of My Grandfather’s Son by Clarence Thomas has lurched to the apparently small section of the book dealing with his confirmation hearings and Anita Hill, but as the news reports show, there is little fresh material there. Rather than addressing new content in the book, the media are rehashing the Anita Hill story.

The tricky thing with book releases is that while a publication’s book section may given ample space to the book, the news department is under no requirement to give the book any attention — unless there is new material in the book. So what is the news here?

The Washington Post‘s news story does the best job hinting at the religious aspects raised in the book, but hints is all we’re given:

Thomas lovingly describes the iron-willed grandfather who raised him after his own father abandoned him as a toddler, praises the Roman Catholic Church for providing him with an education but criticizes it for not being as “adamant about ending racism then as it is about ending abortion now,” and gives a detailed description of the confirmation hearings that electrified the nation in 1991 and the sexual harassment allegations by Anita Hill that he said destroyed his reputation.

Later on there is this tantalizing bit regarding Anita Hill and how Thomas viewed her religious faith:

He writes that Hill did a “mediocre” job at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where he was chairman, and misrepresented herself at the time of the hearings as a “devoutly religious Reagan-administration employee.” “In fact, she was a left-winger who’d never expressed any religious sentiments” and had a job in the administration “because I’d given it to her.”

If you don’t think religious issues are news then you should stop reading this blog. Assuming that you are still with us, what about the revelations of Thomas’s religious faith is not news? The Post mentions the bit about how he had fleeting thoughts of suicide in the early 1980s, but that’s it. Any chance there were some words on how his religious faith played into that incident?

Articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times are equally void of religious discussion. They don’t even mention that Thomas is Catholic.

I guess we’ll just have to wait for a reporter who takes religion seriously and sees its involvement in a person’s life as something significant and worthy of reporting.

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You say you want a revolution

JournalistNormally we look at mainstream media, but I came across an essay in my church body’s monthly newspaper that is worth sharing. In The Reporter, veteran foreign correspondent and former religion editor at UPI (and my friend and fellow Lutheran) Uwe Siemon-Netto looks at how the mainstream media treat Christians and, conversely, atheists. He notes Christopher Hitchens’ fawning reception by CNN’s Lou Dobbs, among other examples.

Before we look at Uwe’s piece, however, let’s look at Christopher Hitchens’ account of his treatment at the hands of CNN. He mentions the Dobbs show as part of a rather rose-colored account of his tour — in support of his new atheist tome — for the September Vanity Fair:

May 3, New York City: To the Lou Dobbs show, on CNN — Mr. Middle America at prime time. Mr. Dobbs displays a satirical paragraph from my book, about the number of virgin births that all religions have always claimed. He tells me off-air that he quit Sunday school as a very small boy, and that he’s raised all his children without religion. He lets me bang on a lot. At the end, he refers to my new American citizenship, the oath of which I swore at the Jefferson Memorial on April 13 (Mr. Jefferson’s birthday, and mine). I get to try out my latest slogan, echoing what Jefferson said about the “wall of separation” between church and state: “Mr. Jefferson — build up that wall!” Mr. Dobbs leans over and, on-camera, pins an American flag to my lapel. Patriotism and secularism in the same breath, on middle-class TV. It can be done. As I leave, Dobbs says wryly that he’ll now have to deal with all the e-mails. I promise him that they will be in his favor and ask to have them forwarded. The mailbag eventually breaks about 70-30 in support, though one woman does say that she’ll never tune in to CNN again.

Siemon-Netto wonders why Christians have just resigned themselves to accept such a lack of journalistic decorum. Even though the vast, vast majority of Americans are Christians, the mainstream media routinely mock and cast aspersions on their most treasured beliefs, he says:

Here is my point: So haughty have the major media become in recent decades that the beliefs and sensitivities of the vast majority of their audience no longer matter to them. This applies to many areas of the human enterprise, but is especially true in questions of faith. . . .

A dozen years ago, Peter Steinfels, then the senior religion correspondent of The New York Times, pilloried the media’s failings in covering religion properly in a forum organized by Commonweal, a Catholic magazine. He explained this deficit thus: “I’ll assign responsibility symmetrically to three sorts of causes — one-third to ideological hostility; one-third to ignorance, incompetence, and insufficient resources; one-third to the inherited definitions of news, and the inherent constraints of time and space.”

Ideology, ignorance, and incompetence — these three are constituent parts of arrogance, a human property Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once defined as a synonym for stupidity. Arrogance has become the mark of a crop of college-trained journalists that emerged in the mid-1960s. The Australian-born publisher Rupert Murdoch described them disdainfully as “self-important pundits out of touch with the public taste.”

But unlike so many people who complain about the obvious bias, laziness and idiocy of much of the media, Siemon-Netto lays out a multipronged plan for his Lutheran audience. He suggests that the Lutheran Church — Missouri Synod use its extensive college system to train reporters and editors in the secular journalism trade. He asks donors to fund it and laypeople to support it:

This is precisely the point where confessional Lutherans are superbly equipped to help reverse a perilous development that before long will destroy freedom and democracy because both depend on a well-informed public. We have all the tools for such an undertaking at our disposal. We have the right doctrine by which journalism must be seen as a divine vocation for the secular “left-hand” kingdom if exercised unselfishly — meaning without hubris — out of love for one’s neighbors, in this case readers and viewers. . . .

If you say you are sick of today’s media, let’s go ahead and make new journalists. If they turn out to be good, they’ll find employment — and help reverse a potentially calamitous trend in our society.

It’s easy to criticize but much harder to solve the problem. Siemon-Netto’s proposal for the LCMS is feasible because of our extensive school system and denominational ties. Any other ideas for a comprehensive solution to a media disdainful of religion?

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Religious ‘items’ in a locker

polamalu si coverAnother football weekend, yet another chance to venture into the arena of faith and sports.

For starters, The Washington Post had an interesting story about former Philadelphia Eagle running back Herb Lusk, who is better known for what happened after one of his touchdown runs than for the actual events of his short but sweet National Football League career. Here’s the top of the story:

The play was 48 Toss, and 30 years later, Dick Vermeil remembers it as if he called it last Sunday. Herb Lusk took a pitch from Ron Jaworski, headed around left end, and breezed unscathed 70 yards for a fourth-quarter touchdown. Four steps over the goal line at Giants Stadium, the Philadelphia Eagles’ running back rewrote the playbook. Alone in the end zone, with a crowd of 48,824 looking on, he celebrated with a gesture in what has since become a watershed moment in American sports.

With little ceremony and no advance warning, Lusk kept his eyes straight, dropped to his left knee, and bowed his head in prayer. A few seconds later, he stood back up and returned to the sideline, his legacy sealed.

It was, according to the experts at NFL Films, the first end-zone prayer, and it opened up an arena of public speech and symbolic actions that remains alive and well and controversial to this day.

But the story that fascinated me, for obvious reasons, came early in the week — care of Jasan Cole at Yahoo! Sports. This was a simple Q&A about Pittsburgh strong safety Troy Polamalu, who is, perhaps, best known for the awesome mane of hair that flows out from under his Steelers helmet.

But it seems that Polamalu is also a Christian believer, and Cole not only allows this subject some space in his interview, but gets into some interesting details. Cole just keeps asking questions and printing the details of the answers.

Still, I had to smile at the reporter’s reference to Polamalu having a “carefully arranged series of religious items in his locker at Heinz Field.”

Religious items? What might those be?

See if you can fill in the gaps based on this section of the interview proper, which centers on the fact that Tuesday is on the only day in the week when Polamalu and his wife have the time to go to church.

300px FedorovskayaWhy is that? Does their church have extra long services, or what?

Polamalu: … Tuesday is also our only opportunity to go to church together, so we do that.

Cole: When and where do you go?

Polamalu: It starts at 8:30 (a.m.). … It’s the Nativity of the Theotokos monastery (in Saxonburg, Pa.).

Cole: I know you’re devoutly Christian … but exactly which denomination?

Polamalu: Greek Orthodox. Theotokos literally means the Mother of God.

Cole: How long are you in services?

Polamalu: They usually go to about 12:30.

Cole: That’s a four-hour service. Is that a normal service?

Polamalu: Pretty much, especially at a monastery.

Cole: Can you describe it?

Polamalu: What’s really neat about the Orthodox church is that it’s like walking back in time 2,000 years to the time of the Apostles, when they created these services. You walk into that and it’s really like … living it. They have maintained the truth ever since the beginning.

And so forth and so on.

So, since he is an Eastern Orthodox believer, what do you think those “items” were in his locker? Might they have been icons? You think?

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Offensive roundup

bodyofChristIn the discussion of a previous post about coverage of the Kathy Griffin brouhaha, Religion News Service reporter Kevin Eckstrom says the following about his piece:

My point . . . was that Christians can take a joke, but when it comes to the person of Jesus, the rules change. People’s guard goes up, and understandably so. It’s not so different from how Muslims react to what they see as insulting portrayals of Muhammad.

I thought of that when a reader sent along an interesting Religion News Service story by Daniel Burke about Archbishop Raymond Burke:

A hardline U.S. Roman Catholic archbishop is urging ministers to deny Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion rights, arguing that it’s a “mortal sin” to offer the sacrament to “the unworthy.”

St. Louis Archbishop Raymond Burke, a veteran of clashes between Catholic bishops and politicians, has attempted for years to enlist fellow bishops to deny communion to wayward politicians.

It’s a really interesting story, thorough and well written. The reader who sent it along wondered why the reporter went to the typical sources (the Revs. Richard John Neuhaus and Thomas Reese), although their viewpoints added the necessary context. But look at what some tone deaf editor at the Winston-Salem Journal did with the headline:

‘Wafer Wars’ heat up: Archbishop pressures clergy to deny Communion to ‘unworthy’ politicians who support abortion rights

Newsflash: Sacramental Christians take grave offense at referring to the body of Christ in such a flippant and disrespectful manner. How could the editor in question not know this?

Speaking of insulting, I was quite surprised to read Jeff Israely’s Time article with the scandalous and way undersourced suggestion that Pope John Paul II was euthanized:

In a provocative article, an Italian medical professor argues that Pope John Paul II didn’t just simply slip away as his weakness and illness overtook him in April 2005. Intensive care specialist Dr. Lina Pavanelli has concluded that the ailing Pope’s April 2 death was caused by what the Catholic Church itself would consider euthanasia.

Surely Time has higher standards than this, no? JPII’s death had to have been one of the most chronicled events of the last few years. The medical professor bases her conclusion on her observations of the pope on television. I mean, really. It’s a one-source story. I’m not saying it’s not newsworthy for ConspiracyTheory.com, but Time? The article didn’t even get the Roman Catholic side of the story straight. Take this explanation of doctrine:

Catholics are enjoined to pursue all means to prolong life.

As Father Jonathan Morris explains in a piece for FOX News:

The Time article sets up the case for John Paul II’s alleged hypocrisy with this statement: “Catholics are enjoined to pursue all means to prolong life.”

This is false. It’s good for the story, but it’s not true. Time magazine will never find such a pronouncement in any official teaching of the Catholic Church. On the contrary. The Catechism of the Catholic Church, commissioned and approved by Pope John Paul II, clarifies that our moral obligation to preserve life in its last stages does not include applying extraordinary or disproportional means:

“Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of “over-zealous” treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one’s inability to impede it is merely accepted.” (#2278)

Morris interviewed Israely for his piece and he said, “There is a fine line between creating an open discussion and doing a story just for the sake of scandalous controversy. I hope this article isn’t seen as such.”

I think the way to make sure you’re on the right side of the line is to think carefully about which stories are selected. And if you decide to run with a one-source story about a respected head of the church, perhaps you might want to be very careful about how you treat it.

priestessIn the final installment of my offensive roundup, I offer the latest tired “female Catholic priest” story. The dishonor du jour goes to Marianne Lucchesi Hamilton of the Los Gatos Weekly-Times and the San Jose Mercury News:

Like many devout Catholics, Juanita and Don Cordero kicked off their Sept. 15 wedding anniversary by attending Mass. Four of the couple’s five grown children were in attendance, helping to mark the occasion of the Corderos’ marriage 36 years ago.

But the entire family wasn’t sitting in the front pew during the service. Instead, the Rev. Juanita Cordero, an ordained Catholic priest, was up on the altar, celebrating the Mass.

Cordero, a Los Gatos resident, has been a priest since July. Prior to her ordination she spent 10 years as a Holy Names nun. Though extremely happy in the order, she still felt that something was missing in her life.

Around the ninth paragraph, Lucchesi Hamilton gets around to mentioning that the priest in question isn’t Catholic so much as Catholic. Rome doesn’t recognize her ordination as in any way valid. I guess it’s too much to hope we’ve seen the last of the “female Catholic priest” stories.

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Some stories reverse the mirror

Gloria Strauss 01Few stories will change a journalist’s life. Even fewer stories change a journalist’s life for the better, but that’s exactly what happened to Seattle Times sports columnist Jerry Brewer since he started writing about Gloria Strauss, the 11-year-old daughter of a local high school basketball coach, who endured a four-year fight with cancer before passing away last week.

The series, titled “A prayer for Gloria,” covers too much ground for us to review here (nine installments), but here is a recent story that movingly describes the young girl’s battle with cancer and how the family’s faith is the essential element in their lives. The story has generated unprecedented reader feedback, a multimedia slideshow, a reporter’s journal and photo packages by Steve Ringman.

A Sunday column by Times editor at large Michael R. Fancher reveals how journalists’ backgrounds and faith will shape a story and their reaction to it:

Given how personal this assignment has become, I felt I should ask Brewer and Ringman whether their own faith has affected or been affected by the story.

Brewer said his grandfather is a Baptist preacher and he grew up in a very spiritual family. “It’s still a factor in my life. It helps me feel the story. You’ve got to feel it.”

Brewer said that when the Strauss family prays, “I know the Bible passage they recite and what they mean.” But the Strauss family is Catholic. “We’re both Christians, but it’s a lot different,” he said.

Ringman said that he has not been a very spiritual person, but the story “opens an opportunity to feel God. It’s very moving and I’m surprised by that.”

gloria straussAnyone who wants to say that reporters’ personal perspectives and backgrounds do not affect the way they cover a story just needs to review this series and what Brewer has to say about how being a person comes before being a journalist. The fact is that Brewer’s religious background helped him report this series in a way that so many readers could relate to and appreciate.

The series is not without controversy. Some readers didn’t like that faith was the central message:

Brewer responds that many families use faith to help them through illness, but “very few newspapers have documented this feeling — religion, if you will — that is very strong and moving within lots of suffering families. By presenting what this family believes and focusing on it, I’m simply putting a mirror on them.”

His online journal is personal, but the stories that appear in the newspaper are told in an unbiased way with very little filtering, he wrote to one reader. “You’re left to make your own conclusions, and if you decide it’s bogus, that is perfectly fine.”

Brewer said he tries to focus on the universal elements of Gloria’s story. He added that one reader commented that what the Strauss family calls faith, that reader calls love.

Both Ringman and Brewer said they have been changed by this assignment.

“Problems seem insignificant compared to what I’ve witnessed in the Strauss family,” Ringman said. “My perspective on life really has changed, spiritually and even materially — love and our children are much more important.”

Brewer answered, “What hasn’t this story changed about my life? It’s literally changed everything. I’m a better man and a better journalist, and I realize even more so that the man comes before the journalist.

And that is exactly what reporters are supposed to do. The quality of the mirror that is put before a journalist’s subjects depends largely on the journalist. Biases and omissions can affect the way the story is played, and often that is how important aspects are lost. For Brewer and Ringman there seems to have been no difficulty in delivering this story as an unvarnished and clear picture.

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