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Mormon Media Observer: What I learned about journalism from general conferences

Published: Sunday, July 5 2015 3:34 a.m. MDT

Nothing was more enjoyable for me as a beginning journalist than covering general conference in the old Tabernacle.

Whereas the general public had to line up hours before the session started, we’d show up to the southwest corner a few minutes before a session started, tell the hosts our names and wander to our reserved benches that sometimes weren’t full, meaning they weren’t as packed as those below. It was almost comfortable, and the view was excellent.

Sure, we had news stories to write on the deadline, but the helpful LDS Church staff provided us with fully typed copies of the general authorities’ talks before the session even started. We could scan for exciting temple announcements or the names of news general authorities and figure out our stories quickly.

It was as easy a writing task as any in journalism. To be sure, the photographers were scrambling to find the right shots — and they always did, but we writers basically sat back and enjoyed an extra special good seat at conference and whipped out a quick story about the talks we had placed before us — written out so we wouldn't have to take detailed notes — and that was it.

I almost hesitated telling my friends that I had it so good. I loved going, and miss that sense of participation at conference as much as anything from being a full-time writer.

Aside from the most important things at conference — the powerful doctrine I learned, the fervent testimonies I felt, and the repentance I desired through those sessions, I also learned a few things about journalism by attending general conference and by watching our leaders in those settings over the years. I'd like to think that the example of my leaders has made me a better writer and communicator.

Here are three principles their examples have taught me, and I would follow as best I can:

First, preparation is essential and can too easily be undervalued.

When I heard Elder Dallin H. Oaks tell an interview with the Mormon Channel that he writes numerous drafts of each conference sermon, I wasn’t surprised that he would work so hard, but what occurred to me is that here is a man who could quite easily fake speeches, and I wouldn’t know the difference. He is a gifted thinker and writer and seems as good of a writer off the cuff as I am after days of preparation. Yet, he prepares at a remarkable level — more than many of us do. Journalism, with its tight deadlines, sometimes teaches us as writers to cut corners as far as possible.

But memorable writing and research of all kinds requires rewriting and dedication to craft. It requires patience and, of course, prayer. Journalism, with its focus on conflict and simple stories, would be better if more time were spent with reworking and rethinking many stories.

Second, the message is the thing.

I learned this from President Howard W. Hunter more than anyone else. I was outside the Tabernacle waiting for my turn to cover a session once, watching through a back window. Memories fade, but I think I had a full view of the podium through the back window I found — maybe it was close-circuit TV screen.

During his long, dedicated service as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, he had been put into a wheelchair. He delivered a few talks from his chair, but then at that session, he had stood again to speak. It was wonderful. Miraculous, it seemed.

As I watched through the back window, I scanned the audience around me, sitting on the Temple Square lawns. His talk suddenly stopped. I looked back through the window, and he had fallen.

The way I remember it is that he got back up with the help of two of his brethren and finished the talk. I remember him picking it up at mid-sentence. He knew what he was to say and did not deviate from that message, even though he was in pain, as far as I know.

He was no less a determined man than in 1993, when a man threatened his life during a BYU fireside. After the threat was over and the man taken away, he delivered the talk, a powerful sermon on adversity, almost as though the terrible threat had never happened. The message was the thing.

He said, “I am here tonight to tell you that despair, doom and discouragement are not an acceptable view of life for a Latter-day Saint. However high on the charts they are on the hit parade of contemporary news, we must not walk on our lower lip every time a few difficult moments happen to confront us.

“I am just a couple of years older than most of you, and in those few extra months I have seen a bit more of life than you have. I want you to know that there have always been some difficulties in mortal life and there always will be. But knowing what we know, and living as we are supposed to live, there really is no place, no excuse, for pessimism and despair.”

For my life as a journalist, the takeaway is clear. Journalism isn’t about me, it is about making a good message and delivering it faithfully. To be sure, journalism isn’t religion nor nearly as important, but what I have tried to learn is that all communication is about having something worth saying and saying it clearly with courage and conviction in a way that will help people improve their lives.

Third, write well.

Contrast the talks of the general authority and auxiliary leaders with the speeches you find online in other settings — even the best of the American rhetorical tradition — and you find their structures, their tone, their storytelling and their rhetoric stands up to the best in the nation’s history. It is fundamentally skilled writing. A study of their words is worthy just for what you will learn about writing itself. Elder Bruce R. McConkie and President J. Reuben Clark's words are just two examples.

I learn from all that, that as a journalist, I must strive to write well. If this is a job that can make a difference, it is one worth doing well.

So, aside from the truly important things around the gospel that I gain in these semiannual sessions, general conference has inspired me to be a better journalist through the dedicated example of my leaders.

Lane Williams teaches journalism and communication at BYU-Idaho. He is a former journalist whose scholarly interests include Mormon portrayals in the media, media and religion, and religion and politics.

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