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LaPlante: Doing ‘missionary journalism,’ from classroom to war zone

January 21st, 2012 Posted in Arts and Life

By Kristen Munson
Liberalis Editor

LOGAN—Framed on one wall of Matthew LaPlante’s office are stories of dying veterans, sick because they had the audacity to breathe on their military bases as open-air pit fires spewed chemicals into the sky. Photographs of a tiny, smiling Ethiopian child, once marked for death, line another. These are just some of the stories that define his journalism career.

In August, LaPlante left the newsroom of The Salt Lake Tribune to join the journalism faculty at Utah State, where he is responsible for training the next generation of reporters. The assignment is sometimes unsettling. Many students in his classes will not find reporting jobs upon graduation. Newsrooms are dying—at least in the traditional sense—and LaPlante understands that for his students to make it in the field, they need to be good. Better than good, really.

“A lot of them are going to be their own bosses,” he said. “We can’t train them to just be journalists anymore. They have to learn to be their own lawyers, accountants and marketers. They need to be all that to survive.”

He describes the state of the modern journalism as reminiscent of the Wild West, without boundaries or rules and where anyone with their own laptop can run a news organization. This environment is not the same one LaPlante fell in love with when his father worked as a newspaper sports reporter in California. Back then, it was not uncommon to find whiskey bottles in the top drawer of an editor’s desk, reporters shouted across a sea of open desks, and the reward for a long day’s effort was reading your byline in a newspaper with ink-stained fingertips.

“I almost feel like I am sending students into this Franklinian environment where anyone who can buy a printing press can get involved,” LaPlante said. “I am not sure how it is going to turn out, but they can have a piece of that now.”

That is, if they can hone their skills. Unfortunately, many students won’t. Many will drop out of the journalism program entirely.

“Most of them will not be journalism majors mainly because most will not pass my class,” LaPlante said. “It would be cruel to pass them on if they are not prepared to be reporters in the field. These will not be degrees to nowhere.”

Ted Pease, head of the department of journalism and communication, hired LaPlante because he has the experience and the chops needed to raise the bar for journalism majors.

“We knew we wanted a professional to anchor the news writing class because we wanted someone who would apply professional standards,” Pease said. “That is the most important class we have; it is the foundation of everything we do.”

The first few weeks of class students cried to him about the new professor. Enrollment in LaPlante’s three hands-on classes plunged from 72 to 44.

“They were scared, saying, ‘I’m not going to pass,’” Pease said. “I told them, ‘Nobody said it was going to be easy. You’re not supposed to know everything now. That’s why you’re here.’”

A different newsroom of sorts

Out of high school, LaPlante enlisted in the U.S. Navy, where he worked as an intelligence analyst before attending college at Oregon State. Afterward, he ignored his father’s advice and joined the staff of an Oregon newspaper to cover sports, crime, and politics. In 2005, The Salt Lake Tribune offered him the national security beat—a position he took on the condition that he would be sent to the war zone.

Within a few months he was embedded with U.S. troops in Iraq. During his time overseas, LaPlante accompanied wounded soldiers on medical evacuations, wrote about health problems of returning troops and joined them on missions.

“There, you roll outside the wire,” he said. “That’s what you do to get a soldier’s trust.”

Insurgents understood that anyone embedded with soldiers was a high-level target. Anytime LaPlante traveled with soldiers he was putting them in greater danger, he said. “I realized it very acutely that it is privilege to tell people’s stories.”

An Ernie Pyle action figurine sits on LaPlante’s file cabinet at work. The famed World War II correspondent was one of the first reporters to practice immersion journalism during wartime.  He captured hearts by writing dispatches of the setbacks and pains of everyday soldiers.  He was shot and killed while reporting in Japan in 1945. Journalism has changed since Pyle filed stories from the field, LaPlante said.

“It seems to have been surpassed by a corporate culture that doesn’t value passion or strong voices in writing,” he said. “For me, it became more and more like a Dilbert cartoon. We had cubicles go up.”

LaPlante admits that the newsroom of yesteryear may not be the most productive model for papers today.

“There were a lot of things that were unhealthy about that style newsroom, but that’s what I fell in love with,” said LaPlante, who was named Utah’s Society of Professional Journalists’ newspaper reporter of the year in 2008 and 2010, and  won the 2011 Top of the Rockies journalism contest for public service reporting.

Now, LaPlante runs his own newsroom of sorts, anchoring the JCOM department’s news writing boot camp.

He enters class carrying an open Mac laptop and begins talking over the chatter. LaPlante is a few minutes early, but class has begun. No one arrives after him.

During class, students receive feedback on stories they filed the night before. LaPlante advises them not to embellish their stories. Just observe and write. His expectations are clear: “These stories should be perfect.”

He realizes he is being hard on his students—but then again, journalism isn’t easy.

Sophomore Marie Titze appreciates LaPlante’s candid teaching style.

“The first class was so intimidating. I was kind of shell-shocked,” she said. “He doesn’t sugarcoat anything. A lot of people have dropped the class, but I know that the people who are still there appreciate him. Not one person has an A, though.”

Titze is grateful for LaPlante’s high standards. They prompt her to work harder.

One afternoon he stepped outside to take a phone call and returned with news of the latest round of layoffs to hit local newsrooms. The reality of her chosen field finally sank in.

“Journalism is a really competitive field,” Titze said. “I knew that before, but I never understood it. I still want to do it, though.”

She believes LaPlante’s class is preparing her for the future.

“Until this class, I never would have thought about news writing. I thought I was headed for broadcast,” she said. “But I’ve learned that I am a decent news writer—at least according to Professor LaPlante’s standards.And that means something.”

Missionary journalism

Over the summer, LaPlante traveled to Ethiopia alongside Rick Egan, a photojournalist he worked with at the Tribune, to investigate a rumor of three tribes murdering babies in the name of “mingi”—a curse considered to cause crops to fail and cattle to die. The babies were drowned, suffocated, or left for dead on the outskirts of town. (See ‘Mingi’—Journalists bring story of Ethiopian infanticide to USU)

LaPlante needed to find out the truth. He cashed out his savings, took a loan from his dad, and boarded a plane with just three names in a notebook and two phone numbers.

“We knew it was all a gamble,” he said. “We knew it was going to be very difficult to bring this story in.”

They had no idea if any news outlets would pick up the story, if they would be able to recoup the cost of the trip. Still they went.

“We felt it was important,” LaPlante said. “It’s missionary journalism. It’s doing it because we want to commit acts of journalism.”

They landed to find their contacts had evaporated and they were starting from scratch. Egan and LaPlante hired a driver, fell into a lucky conversation with a waiter over dinner, and followed the story to a corrupt orphanage and three villages in the Omo River Valley.

“This was the most remote place I have ever been to,” LaPlante said. “There are no roads that go there, just not so well-traveled-trails.”

There he inquired about mingi. Local tribe members spoke openly about the practice. LaPlante met individuals who had offered their infants without argument, believing them to be infected. Others confessed to burying their children alive because they were thought to be possessed.

The tribes believe that a person possessed by mingi can bring a spirit to the village with the power to turn up the heat of the sun, destroy livestock, and decimate crops. To prevent the destruction of the tribe, a child born with mingi must be killed, LaPlante said. “It becomes a choice between saving the child, or the whole tribe.”

After spending several days with the tribes it became clear the story was not just about infanticide—it was about fear, LaPlante said.

The lore of mingi has accumulated for generations in the remote and primitive villages, and varies between tribes. A baby may be identified as mingi if the mother got pregnant before receiving specific tribal rites, if the child’s top teeth come in before the bottom set, or if the baby is deformed. Mothers carry their babies to full term, knowing they will be killed upon birth. Many hope they will be adopted by nearby tribes who do not support the practice, LaPlante said.

Recent government crackdowns have resulted in the prosecution of mothers of mingi babies and have driven the practice underground. LaPlante left Ethiopia conflicted about what his reporting would achieve.

Encouraging people to donate to the nearby orphanage caring for rescued babies would benefit corrupt individuals, and highlighting the problem might increase arrests of mothers rather than actually stop the murders, he said. “I don’t want to say it is hopeless, but I did not walk away feeling we had identified a solution. Sometimes journalism is like that. Your part is telling the story. As remote as these people are, it is the world’s problem.”

In November, LaPlante’s story appeared as the lead on CNN.com. This summer he will lead student journalists on a two-week trip to Ethiopia so USU students can open their reporter’s notebooks and find new stories to tell.

• This story appears in the January issue of Liberalis, the magazine of the USU College of Humanities & Social Sciences, and is republished with permission.


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  1. One Response to “LaPlante: Doing ‘missionary journalism,’ from classroom to war zone”

  2. By Ray Dangel on Jan 23, 2012

    Great story on a great journalist, bit I believe the word should be “sank” instead of “sunk” in this graf:

    One afternoon he stepped outside to take a phone call and returned with news of the latest round of layoffs to hit local newsrooms. The reality of her chosen field finally sunk in.

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