Monday, June 22, 2009

Saving a lost boy.

Kudos to the Deseret News for its excellent reporting on the weekend rescue of a boy lost in the mountains near Daggett Lake.

That it happened on a Sunday morning and the reporters got photos and excellent stories -- even an interview with the boy himself, shows determination and solid craft.

It also shows classic feature style form -- anyone can learn more about effective writing here.

Readers often generally only read one sentence before deciding whether to read an entire piece, so writers ought to hook them in that sentence.  Often, the best approach to a story like this is to find an irony or a dramatic moment.  (I likely would have picked the dramatic moment -- when the family knew the boy was lost -- when the men on horseback found the boy -- when the boy decided to start cutting up his jacket ... moments of decision that illustrate the central conflict of the story.) They chose irony -- how is it like the Hansel and Gretel story, a solid choice.

All effective hooks, and this has one, start with an implied question.  (Something like, what happened next or what happened after?  In this case, the implied question is?  How is it like Hansel and Gretl?)

THe article then answers that question, giving a rough overview of the story in what is called a nut paragraph or nut paragraphs.

The middle of these pieces follows these nut grafs, and this is a classic example, often merely tells the story in chronological order.

The ending leaves us with an emotion -- Philip Fradkin, a pulitzer winner, calls it a "twanger." 

This writing doesn't end with a restatement nor some kind of moral.  Instead, it is a little emotion -- the twang of a guitar string -- that captures the story somehow and leaves with a feeling of completeness.

This example doesn't return somehow to the beginning, but endings often do.

I plan to show this to my students as a classic example of writing.

Nice work.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Modern missionary work

The Religion News Service, republished here, has published a solid article about the church's online missionary efforts.  

About a year ago, I took a couple of hours and systematically looked at articles about Mormon missionaries in the American news media.

With only a couple of exceptions, they were extraordinarily positive.  What I noticed is that missionary stories needed to be more than just typical Mormon missionary, but the missionary with an unusual challenge or the missionary with the unusual story.

This fits this.  As always, letting our people speak -- when the news media allows it -- is the best P.R. the church has.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A must-read

Not surprisingly, The Wall Street Journal published the best personal account of the demonstrations in Iran.

It looks as though we have, more or less, another Tiananmen Square.

Nevertheless, something is in the air there and it is inspiring to watch.

Stunning to think that the Muslim call, God is Great, has become a cry of liberty.

I do stand with these protesters.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Yettaw in Newsweek

I'd have to say that Newsweek's coverage of John Yettaw this week is fair-minded and a complete story about this sorrowful man.
It suggests Yettaw suffers from mental illness and has had a rough life.  His Mormonism, more so than in most coverage in the U.S., is part of this news story.
When I see stereotypes in coverage, I wince.  That he is portrayed as crazy and a Mormon, can't be considered as a positive way of looking at the church.  His "visions" and sense of peace at what he has done must be considered as heuristics -- shortcuts -- for the way some people view the Mormon faith.  So, that is discouraging.
But, Yettaw is Mormon.  His story is sad.  So, the story is accurate.  I suspect that most fair-minded people reading this article will not conflate Mormonism with mental illness. 
My bigger worry is for what Yettaw's odd choice may do for the future of the church in Burma.  It will be remembered that he is a Mormon, at least I perceive it will be remembered, thereby coloring a whole nation's view of the faith -- which has limited understanding of Mormonism at this time.
As it is, all we can do is trust that God will find a way to turn this for good in his due time.  He has done so before and will do again.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

PBS' bad decision

Paul Fahri wrote in the Washington Post that PBS has reached a compromise about religious programming.  Programming at PBS should be non-sectarian.

KBYU in Provo, therefore, was granted a reprieve.  It will be allowed to broadcast the types of religious programming it has broadcast, but no new religious broadcasts on other PBS stations would be allowed.

I suppose that this is a good decision for KBYU -- but not that major, KBYU could simply begin to broadcast BYUTV content and be fine had this decision gone against it.

What is frustrating here, however, is the overriding principle -- getting religion off public television unless it is discussed in a sectarian way.  Otherwise, it seems, people worry the brand of public television will be hurt with religion.

Here is the trouble.  Public television should be challenging.  It should have profound discussions of religion -- even seeming to have the effort to convert at times.  Why?  America needs its religions to be part of the national conversation.  It needs religion to have access to the masses.  Otherwise, religion will seem sinister, even evil, because it is treated with silence and deference.

Let's continue to find new says to approach this issue.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Philly Inquirer

The religion section of the Philadelphia Inquirer has a terrific article this week on Mormon mission presidents going from and coming to the area.

The article does credit to LDS people and is well-written.

What I like about it -- again -- is that if reporters let us tell the story of our own lives, then we look good as a church. Rely on outsiders to describe doctrine and you get a hodgepodge.

What is evident in this story, more so than in others about missionaries that I have read recently, is that Mormons are serious people, often successful.

So, What would make a man like this give up his career to go supervise 20-year-olds for three years?

And, if the Book of Mormon is the product of a 19th century charlatan -- as is often alleged -- why do such smart people follow it so directly?  Surely, there is something to this book.

I would even suggest that there seems a quiet reverse backlash going on in the press.  Mormon people got involved in politics for proposition 8 and have received scorn.  But, Mormons are being portrayed as being serious and doing prop 8 out of principle, knowing full well that they might be attacked for doing so.  Such standing for principle is refreshing in politics.  Powerful stuff, really.

I am proud to be part of a faith that produces such people as this.

Front page of The New York Times

The New York Times had a fun piece on former Mormon missionaries who profit from selling things such as security systems door to door.

I am not sure that Pinnacle Security is exactly what we want Mormons to be, but there is much to recommend the coverage of the church, even in this way. 

Friday, June 12, 2009

Time this week.

Time magazine has a long feature on the Church and proposition 8.  Reasonably fair-minded and interesting.  It does have some loaded terms like how prop 8 seems to be becoming a "referendum on Mormonism itself."

But the article does allow Mormons to speak for themselves, including a talented new mission president from the Bay area, and it talks of church humanitarian work glowingly and describes the remarkable experience of persecution Mormons faced in the wake of Prop 8.  

Still, I can't shake this lingering observation of Mormon coverage today.  It may be accurate, largely anyway, but it misses something.

I have concluded that people don't really get from the media what we are claiming with the Book of Mormon and how it shapes us.  Yes, some report our description of its miraculous origins.   Indeed, Many journalists in recent years have told the origin story of the book of Mormon -- but left their evaluation of the book there, implying that we must use the origin story of the Book of Mormon as the way to evaluate whether the book is true -- not on what the Book of Mormon actually says and accomplishes in lives.

It is something that still bothers me a great deal about religion coverage generally and Mormon coverage in particular.  We don't get how people live their religions.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Another soldier's death

Another Mormon soldier from Northern Ireland has died, the Belfast Telegraph reports.  Sean Binnie, a Mormon hero, died about a week ago in Afghanistan.

I was critical of the coverage of Binnie's death, noting that no one had talked of his faith, whilst covering broadly the Mormonism of John Yettaw.

That has changed with this second death and the coverage was sensitive and kind.

The second soldier, Nigel Moffatt, was in the same Belfast congregation as Binnie and his father described glowingly Moffatt's dedication to his faith and of his missionary work.

His quote is a tribute to his Mormon faith:  "I have my beliefs which are set upon a rock but I struggle because it hurts a wee bit."

Condolences to this brave church unit who lost two sons in a short period, as high a toll as any unit in the church with which I am familiar.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

A couple of Book of Mormon writings

A couple of events in the news this week made me think of three important defenses of the Book of Mormon, that I wish to recommend:

Orson Scott Card.

Hugh Nibley's response to Faun Brodie 

Terryl Given's book -- more a history than a defense -- is another I recommend.

As a journalist, I am moved by the quality of the stories in the Book of Mormon -- they are dense but very good and very memorable stories because the human conflict in them is deep and real.  The book is stunning.

Lastly, and most importantly, recent critics of the Book of Mormon neglect entirely the Mormon argument.  Ask God, and he will manifest the truth of it unto you, if you ask in faith.

I have received my answer -- in many ways and in many times. 

The book is true. I marvel at it every day.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Is it still communication if nobody reads it?

Today is an off day for Mormon news -- more on poor Mr. Yettaw and a bit in the Washington Post about a short play set in a tour of a Mormon Temple.

So, my doctoral research has set me thinking.  Is it still communication if no one reads or responds to a message sent?

This kind of forlorn question might have seemed silly a decade ago -- when mass media still dominated.  Today, in an era of unread blogs, of pointless tweets and unopened letters amid shrinking audiences, the question has profound implications.  (And hardly opened dissertations have always been an example of this kind of communication.)

LDS scholar John Durham Peters book, Speaking into the Air, for my money the most important book on communication history and thinking in a very long time, asserts that the essence of communication is MIS-communication.  The missed signal, the poorly turned phrase, the unopened letter and the silence of ritual, all can be important forms of communication -- even as they really don't convey information.

Indeed, our attempts to communicate with the dead by silently leaving flowers at graves or celebrating images of dead relatives, are among the most profound things we do, he seems to tell you.

His moral, it seems to me, is that in a world with high expectations of communication and dialogue and persuasion (Ever notice how deep President Obama's assumptions are about the possibilities for dialogue?) remains that it is OK when communication doesn't have its intended result, when we miss on our messages.  Much like the sower planting various seeds in a wide variety of ground, so communication is an attempt to reach across the chasm that separates us as humans.  His solution is simple kindness and patience in the face of bleak disconnectedness.

What does this have to do with Mormonism?  Well, media portrayals often show us as secretive and deceptive -- Pew has suggested it is a common perception of us among non-Mormons.  That we often embrace silence as part of our religion, and that journalism ethics seem to have an aversion to secrecy,  (We Mormons do show proper concern for secrets and combinations.)  we have no need to apologize for this part of our religious practice.  Silence can be a form or substance of communication, as legitimate as dialogue.     In times of trial, it may be the last form of communication available to us, as when Mormon stood as a silent witness of Nephite apostasy.  Without silence, we have no communion -- no communication -- in nature or in our temples.   Silence is OK.

Monday, June 1, 2009

An ugly turn in Mormon coverage

Last week's Washington Post had an article talking about the campaign against gay marriage and the church's role in it.  Three eastern Web sites carried banner ads from gay marriage proponents saying, "The Mormons are coming!"

That a few papers refused to run it is to their credit.  Can you imagine any newspaper accepting an ad that said, "The Jews are coming?"  or "The gays are coming?"  or "The blacks are coming?"  

Why, then, accept an ad attacking Mormons with this language?

That these advertisements hearken to stereotypes of supposed Mormon militancy suggests a deeply rooted, bigoted attack, one thought out, in fact.  Indeed, opposition researchers are trying to craft the story of gay marriage as Mormons against gays -- not on the issue itself.  Largely, this is so because Mormons are seen as unpopular and growing more so.

But this isn't the only ugly turn this week.

The unmediated commentary on the Salt Lake Tribune's Web site about the attack on LDS apostle Russell M. Nelson during a robbery in Africa was startling to say the least.  Commentators mocked my religion in deeply personal and insulting ways.  That the Trib wasn't cheerleading is to its credit, but the quality of the conversation saddened me.  The Trib might look to its policy and forbid overt religious bigotry.

Lastly, there is a new argument about gay marriage:  Mormons were persecuted for their religious practices - notably polygamy.  Why are they persecuting now? The argument goes.

Three important reminders:

Mormon persecution began long before polygamy.  Recent research suggests that much of the persecution was about power.  (See Clark Johnson's work in BYU Studies about the Mormon redress petitions.)

When polygamy became the central rallying cry against Mormons -- when they began the practice, there were no laws prohibiting it, by the way -- and government came to prohibit the practice, Mormons did accommodate themselves to the law.   It wouldn't be hard for gay Americans to do the same.

Last, no one has ever shown that marriage was fundamentally about civil rights -- it includes societal and concerns about children as well.  (If the only value in marriage were civil rights, no state would ban first cousins from marrying, for example.)  Otherwise, Mormon polygamy never would have been outlawed in the first place.

So, as Mormons are cast as bad guys in the public discourse, remember, it is largely about power today as well, just as when we were cast as dangerous villains in the 19th century.