Few 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."
Anyone 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.