Eyewitness News

“If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

That was the maxim at the famed City News Bureau, where young reporters covered crime, fires, courts and city hall for Chicago’s major newspapers, TV and radio stations. Over its 115-year existence (1890-2005), some of America’s best journalists got their starts there. Even some of my own NIU journalism grads worked at City News in its final years. It was gritty, often grim work, sifting through police reports of murder and mayhem and then checking everything out by going to those neighborhoods and finding eyewitnesses. When a story came out of City News, you could trust it because you knew the reporters had done the legwork.

Now imagine that, during the Roman Empire, City News had a Jerusalem bureau. You’re a news reporter on overnight duty. A wild report comes in from the sleepy suburb of Bethlehem. A bunch of angels have appeared in a field, announcing the birth of some baby whom they say is the Messiah.

Uh, sure. All that’s missing from this story is Bigfoot arriving in a flying saucer. But apparently something happened out there. So you hop on your camel and ride to Bethlehem to check it out. You arrive at the stable mentioned in the reports and, sure enough, there’s a couple with a newborn baby. All right, that’s a little odd, but understandable given that the inns were full with people in town for the census. The baby looks normal enough. The mom seems to have a knowing smile, but there are no angels in sight. Nothing to see here.

You ask the parents about the angel story.

“Oh, that was some shepherds who showed up right after the baby was born. They seemed pretty scared.”

Great. Your only eyewitnesses are … shepherds? The dirty guys who wander around fields all night protecting sheep? They probably imagine all kinds of crazy stuff out there in the dark. And who knows how much they had to drink?

The parents go on to mention the angels. They saw one, too, a few months earlier.

“Uh-huh,” you say, slowly putting away your notebook and shuffling toward the door. You thank them and depart, deciding to put this one in the file with alien abductions and Julius Caesar conspiracies.

Continue reading
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Eyewitness News

Believe it or not

In an age where bad information runs rampant, Christians can act counterculturally.

Elvis lives.

The moon landings were faked.

Some of the world’s leaders are really alien lizard people.

Prominent politicians are part of a secret sex-trafficking ring that drinks the blood of children.

COVID-19 was engineered by the media and ruling elites as a secret means of population control.

Earth has already been sucked into a black hole inadvertently created by scientists in 2012, and therefore the end of the world has already begun. (This would explain the Cubs’ 2016 World Series win.)

In an age of distrust and tribalism, false and misleading information has run wild. When 2020 and 2021 saw both a global pandemic and a bitterly fought presidential election, conspiracy theories went mainstream. Millions of evangelical Christians were among those buying into provably false theories. Even if we steered clear of those, we bought narratives based on misinformation or disinformation. If Trump won, all would be lost. If Biden won, all would be lost. Our responses to COVID-19 depended more on our politics than on public health information.

In 2021, surveys show about half of Americans believe things that are provably false, or disbelieve things they can plainly see. Can we agree this is bad, and orchestrated by our spiritual enemy? It’s an even more serious crisis for the church. When Christians believe and promote false ideas, why would anyone think our gospel witness was any more reliable?

Continue reading
Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on Believe it or not

Discerning truth in news

From the London Institute for Contemporary Christianity: Former BBC journalist Julia Bicknell talks about navigating misinformation, disinformation, “fake news” and conspiracy theories. This is comprehensive, thoughtful and worth your time.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , | Comments Off on Discerning truth in news

Smartphone Photography

Here’s an interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning news photographer Scott Strazzante, who is also one of the best in the world at smartphone photography.


Hipstamatic camera app

Scott’s portfolio page at Photoshelter

Scott’s Instagram feed

Scott’s book: Shooting from the Hip

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Comments Off on Smartphone Photography

Apocalypse Sunday

Editor’s note: In a departure from the usual type of Go Tell It post, this one simply illustrates how creative writing can teach. My friend, Cherice Ullrich, and her colleague, Chris Jones, teach Bible at Rockford (Ill.) Christian High School. They were looking for a creative way to help their students study the Book of Revelation. I think they found it.

“I was transported to another reality. I saw the 55th bowl coming down from the sky in the Sunshine State. And there was great shouting as the final battle began. Out of the southern sea came one like a goat, branded with the number 12, who had six rings on one hand and his other hand appeared deflated. He led an army of men from the sea against warriors wielding a large arrow. These were clothed in red, the color of blood, with golden hands and feet, and a head that sat on top of their other head. Their leader had only one ring on his hand. 

Continue reading
Posted in Creativity, Writing | Comments Off on Apocalypse Sunday

Overcoming the monster

People who teach writing like to talk about the basic elements of any good story. Characters. Setting. Conflict. A 350-foot-tall lizard that breathes lightning and threatens humanity.

Stick with me here. Any story needs a monster, and according to three dozen movies, Godzilla stands as the king of all monsters. Name any great film or novel and tell me it wouldn’t be even better if Godzilla were somehow involved. Gone with the Wind. Chariots of Fire. Driving Miss Daisy. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

All Godzilla films follow a standard plot. Humans test nature’s limits, and something awful is awakened. The monster almost destroys us, amid stories involving nuclear attacks, the Cold War, technology run amok, genetics run amok, hostile aliens run amok and, especially, other giant monsters run amok. Most of the early Godzilla films were made in Japan, as a response to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Some are pretty good (like the 1954 original). Most are cheesy (the bottom feeder being 1994’s Godzilla vs. SpaceGodzilla). The 2014 incarnation, “Godzilla,” was the best of the bunch. I’m not much for sci-fi or comic book films that become a two-hour video game; this story takes a nice, long time to rev up before the Tokyo-smashing begins.

Last week, Warner Bros revealed the trailer for the most spectacular Godzilla movie since the last one. Godzilla vs. Kong comes out in March and involves “a swath of destruction across the globe.” You can make the following presumptions about this movie: 1) It will be stupid. 2) I will watch it anyway, as part of my quest to remain perpetually 12 years old. 

Continue reading
Posted in Culture, Story | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on Overcoming the monster

From prayer letter to video story


The video above came about through strong communication among Wycliffe Global Alliance partners. Let me walk you through the process.

Jurek Marcol, director of the Biblical Missionary Association (Wycliffe Poland), wrote a letter about working with Roma people in eastern Slovakia. He sent it to the Wycliffe Global Alliance Prayer team, who recognized it as a potential story and sent it on to our Communications team.

I emailed Jurek, asking his permission to produce a story for Wycliffe.net. I also asked him some follow-up questions:

  • What is the name of the village where you have been working, and in what part of Slovakia is that?
  • How did Wycliffe Poland become aware of the Roma people in this village?
  • You mentioned that most of the village attends church about 12 km away. Is this a Roma church, or mixed? Do they walk there? Or how do they get there?
  • Are they reading the Bible in the Slovak language, or a Roma translation? What is the status of Bible translation in their Roma language?
  • Finally: Do you have two or three photos we could use with the story?

An evangelistic gathering among the Roma people in Bezovce, Slovakia.

Jurek emailed back the next day with detailed answers, plus even more contextual info about the Roma in Slovakia. I already knew some of this, having reported stories from Slovakia in 2016 about the Old Testament translation project happening there. But Jurek’s information brought me up to date.

Next, I edited Jurek’s piece for clarity, style, and to add the new information he had provided. I kept the piece in his first-person voice (“I”). That is not something we always do, but in this case, he was telling the story from his personal experience. It made sense for me as the editor to stay out of the way.

Jurek also sent me close to 20 good photos — photos of their team’s work in Ukraine and then of their more recent work in Bezovce, Slovakia.


Assembling video pieces

With the written story done, and a good supply of photos, next we tried something additional. I emailed the story back to Jurek, and asked if we would be willing to shoot a cellphone video of himself reading it. He was happy to do that, so I sent him our tips for shooting smartphone video of yourself — including the important point of shooting the video horizontally, to match photos and screen formats.

Jurek sent his video recording back to me a few days later via Google Docs. Now I had the pieces to turn this into a video story. I work in Adobe PremierePro, but the process would have worked equally well in iMovie, Adobe Rush or any number of other video editing applications:

  1. Start by creating a track with Jurek’s video of himself reading the story.
  2. Overlay relevant photos to match what he is talking about in the story. This is called B-roll, and it transforms a video.
  3. Add some transitions and effects, such as slowly zooming or panning in some of the photos (this is sometimes called the Ken Burns effect, named after the famed American documentary filmmaker).
  4. Add the Global Alliance and Biblical Missionary Association (Wycliffe Poland) logos at the beginning and end.
  5. Add music. It plays very softly behind the story, but it provides continuity. I downloaded the track, called Mirage, from Facebook’s free Sound Collection — though there are many other free sources.
  6. Export the video, then upload it to The Alliance’s Vimeo page.

I am not the best video editor, and the result certainly will not win an Academy Award. Jurek’s written story would have worked just fine on its own. But accessible technology and communication tools helped bring this story to life. All it required was a little knowledge of photography and videography from the person living the story. Certainly it also helped that Jurek speaks English … but even if someone does not, you can use a translator and then add subtitles to the finished story in whatever language you want.

With travel limited, God’s stories don’t stop happening. As we seek creative ways to identify and report them, a simple video like this is another tool worth trying.

Continue reading

Posted in Photography, Videography | Tagged , , , | Comments Off on From prayer letter to video story

5 keys to shooting smartphone video of yourself

Suppose you need to shoot a video of yourself speaking. Even if you have no equipment other than a smartphone, here are five ways to maximize quality:

1. Lighting

Light your face. If there is a window, it should be in front of you (out of view) or to the side — never behind you. A desk lamp just behind the phone camera will help light your face. Better yet, use two desk lamps, at the 10 and 2 positions.

2. Stabilization

A shaky camera is distracting and can even make your audience nauseous. Stabilize your phone camera. If you don’t have a tripod, set it on books, boxes, etc.

3. Camera angle

  • Set the camera at your eye level.
  • If you are alone, use the phone’s rear-facing camera (on-screen) so you know exactly what the shot looks like.
  • Minimize distractions in the background.
  • If you wear eyeglasses, angle your camera to minimize any distracting glare or reflection.

4. Framing

  • Use landscape mode (horizontal), never portrait mode.
  • Don’t put the camera too close to your face, or too far away. Let your head and shoulders comfortably fill most of the frame, with some room to spare above and to the sides. The shot should feel comfortable, as if you are sitting across a table from someone — not up in their face, not half a room away.
  • Maintain eye contact with the camera, which equates to eye contact with your audience.

5. Sound

  • Audio quality is even more important than video quality. Find a quiet place to film. This will usually be indoors in a room that does not have a lot of echo. Minimize background noise: fans, heating and cooling vents, music, traffic, birds and insects. All will be more distracting than you realize. Be aware of background noise that may occur as you are filming, and pause if necessary.
  • Put your phone on airplane mode while filming, to avoid calls and messages.
  • Use an external microphone if possible. If you do not have one, check your phone’s earpieces. They may have one built in. If not, you also can record the audio on a second phone, positioned much closer to you than the camera phone. These can be synced later.

Here’s a good video that illustrates some of these tips.

Additional phone tips

  • Film in the highest resolution possible. Check the settings for your camera app. If 4K is an option, choose that. 1080p (full HD) is the next step down, and 720p is the minimum option.
  • Do not zoom by “pinching” your fingers on the screen. This lowers the resolution. Keep the normal focal distance and, if adjustment is needed, just move the phone closer to or farther from your face.
  • With your face in the frame, record about 10 seconds before and after you speak. This helps with editing.


Posted in Videography | Tagged , , , , | Comments Off on 5 keys to shooting smartphone video of yourself

Inside jargon, outside voice

During a recent sermon, American televangelist and presidential adviser Paula White prayed: “We command all satanic pregnancies to miscarry right now.”

Wait, what?

Social media went crazy. Isn’t she pro-life? Who is satanic and pregnant? Those Christians really are nuts.

Later, White tweeted:

“I don’t normally respond but clearly this has been taken out of context. I was praying Eph 6:12 that we wrestle not against flesh and blood. Anything that has been conceived by demonic plans, for it to be cancelled and not prevail in your life, that is- any plans to hurt people.”

“Satanic pregnancies” is not a term I had ever heard, and I have no interest in Paula White and her brand of prosperity theology. But, this was yet another example of a Christian invoking outrage and ridicule through a careless choice of words.

The problem was, she used extreme insider jargon with her outside voice. When we communicate online, the whole world can hear us.

Another term for this type of insider jargon is Christianese — terms, puns and catchphrases only comprehensible within particular Christian denominations or sects. Outside of that context, they may sound weird, creepy or even dangerous.

Here’s a short, alphabetical list of common Christianese. If you’re writing or speaking within reach of any audience outside of your church walls, it’s a good idea to avoid these.

Continue reading

Posted in Culture | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Writing for a global audience

Imagine you are talking with a friend. Then write that way.

That was one of the best pieces of writing advice I ever received in college. It has served me well through almost four decades now, because it helps me remember that writing is a relationship with the reader. We write to be clearly understood. We and our local audience share not just a heart language, but also a heart dialect and common experiences.

Perhaps the nicest compliment I ever received as a writer came from a friend who read one of my feature stories in the newspaper. He said, “I knew it was you even before I saw the byline.”

The “write it for a friend” rule still works if I am writing strictly for an American audience — or for any English-speaking audience familiar with American speech patterns and vocabulary. The rule works for anyone writing to a similar audience in their own cultural context.

But what about writing for an international, multicultural audience? Must we follow the plentiful advice out there that says keep it absolutely simple, clear and … blandly generic?

I believe we can find an acceptable compromise. Here are a few guidelines to make cross-cultural writing understandable but still keep your voice:

Continue reading

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , , , | Comments Off on Writing for a global audience