Commentary: Obama's moving message includes lessons for journalists

Irby is a senior faculty member at The Poynter Institute. Irby is also an itinerant elder in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and pastors the congregation at Historic Bethel in St. Petersburg, Florida.

[caption id="attachment_354455" align="alignleft" width="300"]President Barack Obama sings "Amazing Grace" during services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney last Friday at the College of Charleston TD Arena in Charleston, S.C.. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston. (AP Photo/David Goldman) President Barack Obama sings "Amazing Grace" during services honoring the life of Rev. Clementa Pinckney last Friday at the College of Charleston TD Arena in Charleston, S.C.. Pinckney was one of the nine people killed in the shooting at Emanuel AME Church last week in Charleston. (AP Photo/David Goldman)[/caption]There was never a question that President Barack Obama had soul.

Never a question he had swag.

This weekend, in his nearly 40-minute proclamation on race eulogizing pastor Rev. Clementa C. Pinckney, Obama revealed his spirit.

And if that was not enough, he provided a few life lessons that can also be applied by journalists as they seek to ferret out important untold narratives that help the nation move from despair to resilience.

Inside of College of Charleston's TD Arena on Friday, before some 6,000 mourners and an international broadcast audience, Obama placed the tragedy in the context of America’s long, dark history of violence against African-Americans, repeated his plea for gun control and applauded the removal of the Confederate flag from the grounds of the statehouse in Columbia, South Carolina.

The crowd rose to its feet several times with applause for Obama’s message as the president called on America to demonstrate its resilience and the indomitable tenacity of the human spirit by tapping into our collective faith and offering grace.

He also offered a few lessons that can make the journalism we practice more worthwhile.

  1. Remember our audience is varied and diverse

    Obama entered the arena and greeted every person in his path that reached out to him: Ushers, officers, janitors and dignitaries alike. And when he entered the stage, he shook hands and hugged whoever was on his route. Likewise, his speech appealed to a range of Americans, including those who are deeply religious, poor folks, and highbrow types.

  2. Exercise empathy

    Obama described Rev. Pinckney, affectionately known to friends and family as "Clem," by sharing that he was "full of empathy and fellow feeling, able to walk in someone else's shoes and see through their eyes."

    This quality can make us better journalists.

  3. Provide historical context

    Obama demonstrated that he understood the sense of community that is centered around black churches, particularly the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He referred to them as hush harbors, praise houses, rest stops for the weary, bunkers for foot soldiers, community centers for jobs and justice, places of scholarship and networking, safe and supportive havens for children -- affirming that they matter and providing important context.

  4. Finish your story strong

    Obama said that the shooter, Dylann Roof, "failed to comprehend what Rev. Pinckney so well understood — the power of God's grace. He's given us the chance where we've been lost to find our best selves. We may not have earned it, this grace, with our rancor and complacency short-sightedness and fear of each other, but we got it all the same."

    In the tradition of the liberation theology preaching, Obama inspired the primarily African-American audience after a moment of pause, segueing into a spirit-filled sermonic singing of "Amazing Grace," punctuated by the sound of a Hammond C-3 organ and the mass choir.

  5. The question that remains: Will such grace abound and move the media to join the chorus?

  • Kenneth Irby

    Kenny founded Poynter's photojournalism program in 1995. He teaches in seminars and consults in areas of photojournalism, leadership, ethics and diversity.

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