In the mythology of journalism, there is this story about a chart that is -- or so it is said -- hanging on the wall of a generic Associated Press bureau. The chart is supposed to help editors figure out the news value of disasters that take place around the world, when it comes time to decide which stories end up on page one and which ones are buried inside. The bottom line: When tragedy strikes somewhere, 1000 victims in Latvia equals 500 in India, which is equal to 100 in Mexico, 75 in France, 50 in England, 25 Canada, five in America as a whole and, finally, one victim in your own newsroom's circulation area.
It's easy to be cynical about this, of course. But the truth contained in this myth is one that is familiar to all journalists -- all news is local.
Thus, it is no indictment of the Baltimore Sun that a major chunk of its A1 coverage of the recent bombings in Uganda -- apparently another attack by terrorists claiming to act in the name of Islam -- began like this:
As Emily Kerstetter and her fellow church mission members enjoyed a meal at an Ethiopian restaurant in Uganda, the 16-year-old Ellicott City resident told her new friends that she wanted to stay and work through the rest of the summer.
She had already extended her trip once, opting out of her original flight that departed five days earlier. She was ready for more. Minutes later, a suicide bomber struck outside the restaurant, one of two attacks in the Ugandan capital of Kampala that killed at least 74 people and wounded 85 others, including Emily, her grandmother and three other members of her group. Ugandan police believe an al-Qaida-linked group, al-Shabab, is behind the bombings at the restaurant and a rugby club. At both locations, crowds had gathered to watch the World Cup final between Spain and the Netherlands outdoors on a large-screen TV.
"A couple of people have said, 'Man if she'd only come home,'" said Nikki Liskovec, a family friend and former next-door neighbor of Emily and her parents. "But if you'd seen Emily's face, she loved doing this work. You'd understand why she was there."
Obviously, this short-term mission trip is at the heart of Emily's story. The problem is that the Sun report never really lets readers know anything about why she was there and the work that mattered so much to her.
It's a good story. But it just needed a few more details, the kinds of facts that would have required only a few more minutes of work. For example, we are told that this trip was organized by Christ Community Church in Selinsgrove, Pa., the home church of Emily's paternal grandmother. The pastor of the church is the Rev. Kathleen Kind, who is quoted in the story.
That's good. The problem is that this is not an independent community church, it is actually a United Methodist congregation. That detail may not be all that important, unless you happen to be a United Methodist.
However, this also points back to the fact that readers never find out what kind of "mission" work this team is doing. Does that matter? Maybe, maybe not. Would it matter if these believers were Southern Baptists or members of an Assemblies of God congregation? My point is that it wouldn't hurt to offer a sentence or two about the kind of mission work that pulled these mainline Protestants to Uganda.
Then again, the story does give us this insight into Emily and her motivations:
Joanne Kerstetter asked her granddaughter earlier this year to accompany her on the trip, said Liskovec. But the elder Kerstetter warned her granddaughter it wouldn't be easy. Emily would have to raise $4,000 to finance the mission.
The then-sophomore at Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville contacted family, friends, relatives and anyone she could think of to support her cause, said Liskovec. In a newsletter for Mount de Sales Academy, Emily asked her community at the private school for help. "I am feeling that God is calling me to reach out to those who are less fortunate," she wrote in April. "I have been presented with this opportunity to grow in charity toward others." At that point, she had raised only $1,000.
Now what is interesting about this? As it turns out, Mount de Sales Academy in Catonsville, Md., isn't just a "private school" -- its a famous and quite traditional Roman Catholic school. It is also interesting that this school is currently administrated by the Dominican Sisters of the Saint Cecilia Congregation in Nashville, a conservative order that is quite controversial among American Catholics for a simple reason -- it is growing, while most other orders are in rapid decline.
Does any of this matter? I really don't know. This isn't a bad story at all. In fact, I would say that it is an ordinary news story.
At the same time, it is a news story that contains more than its share of vague religious details and it would not have taken much effort for it to have included just a few more facts that would have made it much more complex and, to me, interesting. For example, is Emily Kerstetter a Catholic or a United Methodist? What kind of work with the least of these put this light in her face and made her want to stay in Uganda?
Vague stories can still be inspiring, I guess. Detailed stories that answer obvious questions about identity and motivation tend, in my experience, to be more inspiring.