Duck, duck, goose: Three different approaches to covering Mormon church president's death

As a young journalist fresh out of college, I applied for a business editor position in small-town Oklahoma.

As part of the interview process, the newspaper's top editor asked me to write an obituary — for myself.

The exercise both tested my writing skills and gave me an opportunity to enlighten my potential boss on what made me tick. I guess I passed the exam because I got the job. (I drove extra carefully on the way home, hoping to avoid the tragic car wreck I had just described.)

Very few people get to write their own obit, which leaves the story of their life — if their life merits an obit at all — to others to tell.

I mention this because — even though I am not a Mormon — I was interested in how various major news organizations covered this week's death of Thomas S. Monson, president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. I wonder what Monson would have thought of the way these the following three ledes characterized him. (I'll reveal the source of each lede later in this post and pose a question or two.)

Lede 1:

Even as he ascended to the pinnacle of a worldwide faith, Thomas S. Monson never stopped being a Mormon bishop.
He was the same affable leader, folksy preacher and care-taking friend after becoming the LDS Church’s 16th president in 2008 as he was during his more than five decades as one of the faith’s 12 apostles.
During Monson’s nearly 10-year presidential tenure, which ended with his death Tuesday night at age 90 of causes incident to age, Mormonism faced some of the most intense public scrutiny in its history — from a divisive vote over gay marriage to high-profile Mormon candidacies for president, and a hotly debated policy for same-sex couples and their children. Still, the private prophet stayed largely behind the scenes, showing up unexpectedly at funerals, comforting the bereaved, visiting the sick and, before her death, caring for his wife, Frances.
“With tender feelings we announce that Thomas S. Monson, president and prophet of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died this evening at 10:01 p.m. in his home in Salt Lake City,” church spokesman Eric Hawkins wrote in an email Tuesday at 11:39 p.m. “He was with family at the time of his passing.”

Lede 2:

SALT LAKE CITY — Thomas S. Monson, 90, the 16th president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, died Tuesday night at his home in Salt Lake City.
Known as an administrator who never lost his personal touch and commitment to the poor and needy during half a century in leadership roles, Monson led the roughly 16 million-member church, popularly known as the Mormons, since February 2008.
An LDS church announcement said Monson, who had been in declining health for several years, died “from causes incident to age,” according to a statement from the church. Funeral arrangements are pending.
Monson was a “true prophet” who will be remembered for his lifetime of “lifting the downtrodden, comforting the wounded, healing the sick, brightening the lives of the lonely at heart,” former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney posted on Facebook on Wednesday.
Monson, who was briefly hospitalized after the church’s April 2017 general conference, had been too frail to attend leadership meetings since May and missed the October general conference as well.

Lede 3:

Thomas S. Monson, who as president of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2008 enlarged the ranks of female missionaries, but rebuffed demands to ordain women as priests and refused to alter church opposition to same-sex marriage, died on Tuesday at his home in Salt Lake City. He was 90.
His death was announced on the church’s website.
Facing vociferous demands to recognize same-sex marriage, and weathering demonstrations at church headquarters by Mormon women pleading for the right to be ordained as priests, Mr. Monson did not bend. Teachings holding homosexuality to be immoral, bans on sexual intercourse outside male-female marriages, and an all-male priesthood would remain unaltered.
Mr. Monson displayed a new openness to scholars of Mormonism, however, allowing them remarkable access to church records. But as rising numbers of church members and critics joined the internet’s free-for-all culture of debate and exposé, his church was confronted with troubling inconsistencies in Mormon history and Scripture. The church even found itself at odds with an old ally, the Boy Scouts of America, which admitted gay members and gay adults as scout leaders.

Notice any differences in the three approaches?

The first two ledes reflect some level of humanity and personality in describing Monson. The third lede is more of a rundown of Monson's stances on hot-button issues and is told from an obviously progressive perspective. Am I right? (Think "Kellerism," to borrow the term coined by GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly.)

Who are the sources of the above ledes? The first is from the Salt Lake Tribune, where Godbeat veteran Peggy Fletcher Stack was the lead writer. The second is from USA Today (via Religion News Service), where former (as of last week) GetReligion contributor Mark Kellner was the correspondent. The third is from the New York Times, which believes in putting as many details as possible in the opening paragraphs of obits.

Personally, I enjoyed the first two stories much better. I thought they were newsy and impartial at the same time. The Times story seemed more slanted in how it characterized Monson and the controversies he faced.

I'd love to hear what GetReligion readers think: Do you agree with me or not? Are the first two stories really better than the third? Or is my preference a matter of personal opinion as opposed to journalistic responsibility?

P.S. The Times' veteran religion writer, Laurie Goodstein, also wrote a piece tied to Monson's death. Her report is informative and insightful — and has a terrific lede:

There will be no white smoke from a chapel chimney. There will be no church convention, no lobbying and no election.
Mormons don’t do succession drama. When the head of their church dies, as Thomas S. Monson did on Tuesday, the next leader is chosen from the top ranks based strictly on seniority. The system is intended to avoid any hint of instability or intrigue, but it practically guarantees that the president will be elderly — even very elderly.
President Monson was 90, and had served as prophet and head of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints for nearly 10 years. Following a tradition that dates from the church’s early years, he is to be succeeded by the longest-serving member of a church governing body known as the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles.

If you only have time to read one of the Times' articles, I recommend Goodstein's story.

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