New article: “Building Peace in the Heart of Darkness”

One thing I love about journalism is that stories are everywhere — you just have to know how to draw them out. That was the case this spring when I heard about a party in Washington, D.C. that was hosted by the development organization World Relief. I went on a whim, curious to learn more about their work.

At the party, between appetizers and cake, the World Relief staff began to tell me about a new grassroots program making small steps toward peace in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They spoke excitedly, full of hope and proud of their work. After a lot of research and many interviews, including a long international Skype call, I turned those initial conversations into an article for Christianity Today. Here’s the beginning:

Violence erupted again this week in the fractured Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) when at least 20 people were killed in clashes between the government and the M23 rebel militia, breaking a truce that had held since last November.

The fighting paused Thursday (May 23) for the arrival of United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon in the city of Goma in eastern Congo, according to the BBC. Meanwhile, the United Nations’ new 3,000-person intervention brigade has also begun to arrive in Goma. The force will be allowed to offensively target and “neutralize” violent groups in the region, an unprecedented step for the UN.

Amid the clamor and negotiations, it would be easy to overlook one new movement, working to heal eastern Congo: Small groups of Congolese church leaders, including influential local women, are volunteering to solve and prevent conflicts one at a time, without fanfare.

It’s a simple idea. But in a nation where political solutions are often given more attention than community solutions, World Relief, the humanitarian arm of the National Association of Evangelicals, believes these committees, which require the inclusion of female leaders, could be a key to peace. …

Read more in my latest article at Christianity Today, published May 24.

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Of heartbreak and smartphones

I stood under this quote at about 2 p.m. Monday during a visit the Newseum. The words on the wall just seemed to fit my final week as a newspaper intern, thankful to be pursuing the career I loved at age 21.

Then two bombs went off at the Boston marathon.

I got the news first on my phone as a notification from the Washington Post, and my breath caught in my throat. I immediately opened Twitter and scanned through a burst of updates, then walked out to the Newseum lobby, where a giant TV screen showed the latest from CNN. I stood in silence with the other museum visitors, thankful not to be alone.

What followed, of course, was a heavy week for the nation, and an especially difficult week for journalists. I wasn’t sure whether that H.L. Mencken quote was true any more. Journalism is good and necessary, but it isn’t always fun. Sometimes, it means chasing the currents of a nation’s grief.

Tragedy after tragedy came in quick succession until it was just too much, and we became convinced that the sadness would end when the weekend came.

Since I wasn’t covering any of the national stories, I kept track of most of them through Twitter or by watching cable news in the newsroom. It was hard to sleep some nights, like when the fertilizer plant exploded in Texas, and each new refresh of my Twitter feed brought more bad news.

Journalists like Jay Hicks in Texas and Taylor Dobbs and Wesley Lowery in Massachusetts used Twitter well for on-the-scene, no-nonsense reporting. But for every person reporting accurate facts, there were a dozen others saying and tweeting nothing but misinformation and guesswork, filling airtime (leading to some truly awful journalistic mistakes). I knew this, yet I couldn’t look away. Maybe it was an attempt to cope by distracting myself from the silence.

I think I followed the news too closely this week. Did it do us any good to catch bits of information and speculation from random people before professionals could write an article to help us to make sense of it?

I was only nine years old on September 11, 2001. I remember watching the news at school, and not much else from that day. The way we consume news (I hate that verb, but it’s necessary) has changed so much since then.

Jesse Washington wrote about this for the Associated Press:

In 2001, we could walk away from our televisions. In 2013, bad news follows us everywhere. It’s on our computers at work and home, on our phones when we call our loved ones, on social media when we talk to our friends.

We can avoid Twitter and spend time with people we love instead. But there’s this new obsession to know news first and share it, to be in tune with the world, even if the world is breaking our hearts. At least, that’s what I feel. More from the AP:

“There’s no place to run, no place to hide,” said Dr. Stuart Fischoff, a professor of media psychology at California State University in Los Angeles. “It’s like perpetual shock. There’s no off button. That’s relatively unprecedented. We’re going to have to pay the price for that.”

Farhad Manjoo also wrote about this on Friday in a piece called “Breaking News is Broken”:

When you first hear about a big story in progress, run to your television. Make sure it’s securely turned off.

Next, pull out your phone, delete your Twitter app, shut off your email, and perhaps cancel your service plan. Unplug your PC….

Get a good night’s rest. In the morning, don’t rush out of bed. Take in the birdsong. Brew a pot of coffee.

Finally, load up your favorite newspaper’s home page. Spend about 10 minutes reading a couple of in-depth news stories about the events of the day. And that’s it: You’ve now caught up with all your friends who spent the past day and a half going out of their minds following cable and Twitter.

[The whole post is worth reading.]

I read the full story of the Boston bombing suspects in the Washington Post today — the physical copy of the newspaper — sitting at my neighborhood coffee shop, taking it slow. It was so much nicer than reading Twitter.

Sometimes, I miss the old media. It seems more humane to our grief.

30 minutes at the March for Life

MarchforLife

One of the benefits of living in Washington, D.C. is that you can run down to the National Mall and check out protests on your lunch break. That’s what I did today when I caught 30 minutes of the rally at March for Life.

It’s the 40th anniversary of the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, and this year, like every year, hundreds of thousands of people who oppose abortion gathered on the National Mall with prayers and placards. The temperature was about 20 degrees, and snow would begin to fall before the day was through.

It was a strange crowd, in some ways: nondenominational youth groups marching next to Catholic nuns, shivering blue-lipped Texans cheering with Iowans who arrived by the busload, and even some secular and feminist groups on the edges of the Mall. It was largely white and overwhelmingly young. Teenagers and college students carried signs reading “I am the Pro-Life Generation.” (Despite their passion for the issue, the Pew Research Center says that 57 percent of that American generation — 18 to 29 year olds — do not even know that the Roe v. Wade decision related to abortion.)

Speakers at the rally included Rick Santorum, who prompted loud cheers and spoke about raising a child with a disability, and another activist who said he was conceived when his mother was raped.

What surprised me most was that despite the heavy subject matter and the anger expressed by some of the marchers — I did see one “… or perish in hell” sign — the overall mood was upbeat. The protesters on the Mall seemed confident in their eventual success, citing Bible verses, moral arguments, scientific evidence and statistics about pro-life involvement among Millennials.

Of course, the nation is still bitterly divided over abortion, something never more evident than today as other people held “Keep Abortion Legal” signs outside the Supreme Court, where the March for Life would end up. But I couldn’t stay to watch any of those interactions at the Supreme Court — I had to begin walking against the flow of the crowd to hurry back from lunch.

Coverage elsewhere:

USA TODAY’s Natalie DiBlasio did some good reporting on the March for Life, including lots of personal stories from attendees.

Look through the Pew Research Center‘s latest survey results about abortion. 63 percent of Americans support the decision, while 29 percent would like to see it completely overturned.

Vanity Fair published a profile of Roe v. Wade‘s Jane Roe (Norma McCorvey), who became an unlikely — and, as journalist Joshua Prager tells it, sometimes manipulative — pro-life activist.

3 ways of demystifying the fiscal cliff

I’ll admit it: I don’t really, fully understand the fiscal cliff. That’s why I’m grateful for journalists and news organizations who can explain it in a creative way. Here are a few of my favorites:

1. Newsbound, the startup that specializes exclusively in the “explainer” genre of journalism, has an excellent slideshow that walks you through the fiscal cliff — or “fiscal whatchamacallit,” which is the title they settle on after noting the controversy over the word “cliff.”

Quartz-FiscalCliff

2. Quartz has been keeping track of fiscal cliff news on a physical wall — complete with Clif bars thrown in for good measure. They monitor the wall with a webcam, and all of the items on the wall are actually links to articles, data and humor. Check out the latest image.

3. Circa, which launched my favorite iPhone news app last month (seriously, get it), has a no-fluff article on the ongoing political negotiations over the fiscal cliff. They embed maps, photos, quotes, links to other sources, etc., and they update the story as more information becomes available.

So there you have it. I tip my hat to these three news organizations for making us all a little less confused. Did I miss any good examples?

Your tweets, their brand name

The New York Times’ Jerusalem bureau chief Jodi Rudoren has drawn criticism for what she’s posted on Twitter, most recently during the Gaza conflict. Now, the Times has assigned an editor to review her tweets.

Rudoren calls the move “constructive and cautious,” though Poytner reports that at least one journalist has dismissed the decision as a misguided attempt to maintain journalistic objectivity.

It makes me wonder whether the common Twitter bio disclaimers that say “RTs don’t equal endorsements” — or Rudoren’s version, “Tweets mean hey, look at this, nothing more” — actually mean anything in practice. Journalists are still held accountable for what they tweet, even if it’s just a link to a news article, tweeted without commentary.

The Times’ public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote about Rudoren’s tweets in a blog post yesterday, finally settling on this key question:

Do Ms. Rudoren’s personal musings, as they have seeped out in unfiltered social media posts (and, notably, have been criticized from both the right and the left), make her an unwise choice for this crucially important job?

Sullivan concludes that since Rudoren’s reporting is “exemplary,” her tweets don’t disqualify her for the job.

We all know that we’re supposed to be careful about what we post online, but it seems that journalists, of all people, don’t actually have the luxury of posting “personal musings.” That’s one of the self-imposed restrictions that comes with the privilege of being a journalist.

It seems extreme to assign an editor to a journalist’s Twitter to manage risk, but I expect that we’ll see more of it, particularly with journalists tweeting about sensitive topics. This is where the journalist’s “personal brand” and professional brand collide.

All it takes to be famous

… is a little bit of make-believe.

In this video, average guy Brett Cohen decides to prank people in Times Square by acting like a celebrity and walking around with bodyguards and a few photographers. Sure enough, he’s soon surrounded by a mob of fans, who take photos with him and talk excitedly about how great he is and how much they love his movies. Check out this funny-yet-sad commentary on modern culture:

Of course, this video has already been viewed more than 200,000 times on YouTube, so Brett Cohen is now becoming actually famous because of a viral video about getting people to think he’s famous. It’s an infinite loop!

God, gods and gold medals

Confession: I haven’t been watching much of the Olympics since last Friday’s opening ceremony. (I don’t have cable.) But I have been watching Twitter, and that’s basically the same thing, right?

I’ve been fascinated and surprised by the high volume of coverage about religion at the Olympics. Maybe it’s because Ramadan happens to fall during the Olympics this year, so Muslim athletes have had to wrestle with additional questions about faithfulness and calling. Whatever the reason, I want to point out a few examples of God-and-gold coverage that go beyond the superficial “shoutout to God” level:

Let’s go back a couple thousand years first, and remember that the Olympics have never been completely secular. Religion News Service explains the origins of the Olympics as a religious festival, and USA Today ran an op-ed that begins with the Jesuit background of the founder of the modern Olympics but quickly veers into an aggregate of theological topics that obviously can’t fit in a few paragraphs. The writer alludes to Christianity’s ongoing struggle with gnosticism, then asserts that the Olympic opening ceremony “should have had a celebration of religions as well as a parade of nations.” Huh?

But if you’re looking for that Olympic parade of religions, maybe this photo gallery from the Washington Post will do. It features several athletes who have been outspoken about their religion, including a horseback-riding Buddhist monk. This article gives more details about that monk, who says he wants to use the Games as part of his path to enlightenment.

We’ve all seen bumper stickers that say “God is my co-pilot.” But marathon runner Ryan Hall says “God is my coach,” and he  means it literally. Hall uses “faith-based coaching” instead of a traditional coach. And when he doesn’t win a race? Hall says, “there are consequences… when I don’t hear Him correctly.” Here’s a CNN interview that stays mostly at the surface level:

The New York Times profiled the runner in much more depth last month, including his church affiliation (Assemblies of God) and several things he has done in training — like rubbing anointing oil on his legs or going three days between strenuous workouts — that he borrowed from passages in the Bible.

Have you seen any interesting religion-related coverage of the Games? Let me know.