Most of the stories we critique find their way to GetReligion through technological means: Google alerts, bookmarked religion pages, Twitter posts, Facebook links and e-mailed suggestions by readers.
But the piece I'm about to review — and slobber all over with praise — came from a more personal connection.
A friend and I were talking, and he asked me if I'd seen it.
"It's an amazing story," said my friend, who read it on The Huffington Post (and, for some reason, felt compelled to apologize for getting more and more of his news there).
Curious, I tracked down the story — a 1,200-word Religion News Service feature. Sure enough, the power of this relatively short piece of narrative journalism overwhelmed me.
The riveting story focuses on the mother of a man who shot 10 Amish schoolchildren and her work caring for her son's victims. It's packed with compelling drama, revealing details and raw-to-the-bone quotes. Honestly, I wish I could explain precisely what makes this story work so impressively so that I could bottle the formula and use it in my own reporting and writing.
From a journalistic perspective, let me suggest at least three key ingredients to this story's success:
-- Idea: Journalists like to talk about stories that are so good that they seem to write themselves. That's simplistic, of course. But this is a case where the writer and his news organization deserve kudos for recognizing a great story:
After the shooting, the world was riveted by the remarkable display of compassion shown by the Amish, as the quiet Christian sect embraced the Roberts family and strove to forgive its troubled sinner.
Five years after the shooting, the other side of the story is not well-known -- that of a grief-torn mother seeking the still, small voice of God in the aftermath of tragedy.
One place where Terri has found peace is at the bedside of her son's most damaged, living victim -- a paralyzed schoolgirl, now 11.
During their weekly visit, Terri bathes and talks to her, brushes her hair and sings hymns.
"As we reach out in ways that bring a touch, we can find great healing," Terri said.
-- Ingenuity: This is a story that required the news organization taking a different approach because the main source is a reluctant interviewee. So rather than give up because the source wouldn't talk, RNS found a different means of telling a remarkable story:
Terri Roberts, now 60, declines most media requests.
But she has shared her story at conferences and churches. In March, Faith Church in Lancaster posted an audio recording of her spiritual testimony on its website; she confirmed its accuracy for this article.
-- Implementation: Terrific idea. Wonderful ingenuity. But this story is not the same without a writer highly skilled in his craft who can take the facts and details and weave them in an incredible way. It's like a baseball player whose perfect swing seems to require no effort at all.
This story does not drag to the end. Rather, it reaches an amazing conclusion, to borrow my friend's adjective:
Her son cursed God; she trusts in prayer. Her son acted out his rage; she reaches out in reconciliation.
Terri laments that Charlie lacked what she calls "anchor Scriptures," solid, biblical truths that sustained her during a bout with breast cancer and continue to comfort her now.
She especially wishes Charlie had focused on Paul's letter to the Philippians.
"Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable -- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy -- think about such things," Paul wrote.
"Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me -- put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you."
Alas, this is GetReligion (smile), so I must acknowledge that I wish the story had included just a few more explanations of the main character's religious background. What is her denominational affiliation? What hymns does she sing to the victims? What Bible stories does she read?
But really, I am picking nits at the composition of the Mona Lisa.