With 'I'm a Mormon' campaign, church counters lily-white image
Ruth Williams passes out bulletins at the Third Ward in Washington, D.C., a diverse Mormon church.
November 2nd, 2011
11:32 AM ET

With 'I'm a Mormon' campaign, church counters lily-white image

By Eric Marrapodi, CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Washington (CNN) - The scene at a Mormon congregation here on a recent Sunday would surprise Americans who think of Mormons as young white missionaries in stiff white shirts, black ties and name tags.

Yes, there are white missionaries handing out bulletins at Washington’s Third Ward - what Mormons call their congregations - but there's also Ruth Williams, an elderly African-American woman, decked out in her Sunday best, doing the same.

White, black, Asian and Hispanic Mormons mingle before the service begins. As it gets under way, an African-American tween plays a video game on his smartphone in one pew as a 30-something white woman across the aisle taps away on her iPad.

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On this Sunday, the Sacrament - what Mormons call the remembrance of the Last Supper and what other Christians call Communion - is said in French, a nod to the area's burgeoning West African population.

It is not a special multicultural celebration Sunday. For this growing Mormon congregation in northeast Washington, it's just another weekend.

“It’s 30% Caucasian, 30% African-American, and the rest is a combination of first-generation immigrants from around the world,” says Bishop Robert Nelson, the lay leader of this congregation.

A diverse group of congregants from the Third Ward listens to a sermon.

Washington's Third Ward is a near mirror image of the diverse neighborhood it serves, jarring with the Mormon Church's image as a faith-based club for upper-class whites.

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And the Mormon Church, officially called the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, says the ward represents the diverse face of modern Mormonism, a message it has been trying to spread as part of a yearlong nationwide push to counter its lily-white image.

Since January, the LDS Church has spent millions on an "I'm a Mormon" advertising campaign that features television commercials, billboards and bus signs with Mormons from African-American, Asian, Latino and other ethnic backgrounds. Just last month, the campaign entered 11 new major media markets in Texas, Indiana, Nebraska, Washington, Georgia and Arizona, hitting cities like Atlanta, Denver and Phoenix.

(You won't be seeing the ads in Iowa, South Carolina or Florida. With Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormon, competing in the Republican presidential primaries, the church says it wants to steer clear of politics.)

The Mormon Church even used the ad campaign to launch a shot across the bow of the hit Broadway musical "The Book of Mormon," buying a digital "I'm a Mormon" billboard just down the street from the theater where the show is playing.

The musical satire, co-produced by the creators of the television show "South Park," shows earnest white American Mormon missionaries and their misadventures in proselytization in Africa.

But the billboard shows a very different face of Mormons. There is an African-American couple playing Frisbee on the beach, a Latino grandfather and granddaughter, a goateed motorcycle sculptor.

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An official church website, Mormon.org, lets those interested in the church search for Mormons from diverse ethnic backgrounds and features videos from the likes of black soul singer Gladys Knight and Brandon Flowers, frontman for the rock band The Killers.

"It's to say, 'We're like you,' " said Kathleen Flake, a religious scholar from Vanderbilt Divinity School. "It's an attempt to combat stereotypes so that absolutely people are more open to see the normalcy of Mormonism."

The LDS Church says its attempt at an image makeover is as much a reflection of demographic reality as it is a PR effort. While young white missionaries may still be Mormonism's public face in the United States, they are no longer fully representative of the Salt Lake City-based church.

“Our doctrine is we’re all sons and daughters of God," says Stephen Allen, managing director of the LDS Church's missionary department. "Skin color or anything else is not a significant issue to us.”

Video: Defining Mormonism

As head of global missions, Allen supervises the 52,000 19- to 25-year-old missionaries knocking on doors around the world.

He's also executive director of the “I’m a Mormon” campaign, which began in nine markets this year.

“In terms of targeting, we’re not specifically targeting or avoiding any particular group," Allen says. "We send our missionaries all over the world to anywhere people will listen.”

As the church’s efforts to win converts has expanded internationally, “following the American flag around the world,” as Flake puts it, the LDS Church has grown more diverse.

“We’re in most of the free world right now,” Allen says. "We have a presence in Russia and Ukraine and the Baltic countries. We have a growing presence in Africa ... Nigeria, Kenya … then we have, Japan, Korea, Taiwan. There are small congregations in India, and the church is growing in those places.”

The church's membership has doubled since 1988, to 14.1 million Mormons worldwide.  Six million Mormons live in the United States. Many of the church's members live in the American West and Northwest, in some of the whitest states in the country.

But like many other churches, there has been explosive growth in the LDS Church in Latin America. There are more than a million Mormons in both Mexico and Brazil. There are nearly a million Mormons in Asia and 300,000 in Africa, according to church statistics.

“This attempt to emphasize diversity and to emphasize a wide range of people who are Mormon does reflect, in a lot of ways, what’s been going on in reality for a while,” says Matthew Bowman, an editor at a Mormon studies journal called Dialogue.

Even in the United States, the perception of who Mormons are has changed.

“We’ve done a lot of research to see what people think of us and what their perception is,” Allen says. “Twenty-five or 30 years ago, if you said, ‘When you think of the word Mormon, what comes to mind?’ the answer would have been Mormon Tabernacle choir, polygamists, racists, the Osmonds [singers Donny and Marie].”

While that's less the case today, Allen says many people still don't know what a Mormon looks like - or don't know that there are Mormons from minority backgrounds.

A spokesman for the church said it doesn't keep statistics on members' race or ethnicity.

But “it’s no longer just a predominantly white church,” Allen says. “In our early history, you know, it was founded in upstate New York in the United States and was very much a white congregation, but today it’s very diverse.”

The complexion of the average Mormon ward reflects the neighborhood where the building resides. “Mormon wards are not self-selecting,” says Richard Bushman, a visiting professor at the School of Religion of Claremont Graduate University. “In Mormon congregations, they are just geographical boundaries, and wherever you live, you go to church.”

There is no church shopping. Congregants can’t go to another ward if they don’t like the music or the doughnuts at the social hour, as in many other faith traditions.

In Washington's Third Ward, two new converts who had recently been baptized were welcomed into the church on a recent Sunday. Both women were young African-Americans. The men who formed a circle around them and prayed over them were all white.

Unlike the ward, the church's global leadership in Salt Lake City is mostly white.

It was not until 1978 that African-Americans could serve in priesthood positions in the church, a prohibition that extended back to Mormon leader Brigham Young in the 1850s.

"When you see in that ad campaign Mormons, including African-Americans, they are trying to  communicate against that stereotype that Mormons are racist, there's no question about this," says Vanderbilt's Flake. "They are trying to say, 'That's not fair. That is not who we are. Even if we were, we are not now.' "

Allen says the "I'm a Mormon" campaign was designed to assist the small army of young Mormon missionaries out knocking on doors.

"Our feeling was anything we could do to help them was really important," he says. "And helping them means softening people’s hearts.”

- CNN Belief Blog Co-Editor

Filed under: Belief • Jon Huntsman • Mitt Romney • Mormonism • Politics • United States

soundoff (2,530 Responses)
  1. sheila

    (I'm a Pantheist by the way)

    November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
  2. Dale

    Rebecca Howe: Oh, why can't more men send flowers?
    Sam Malone: I didn't know Mormons couldn't send flowers.
    Rebecca Howe: I said "more men", not "Mormons".
    Sam Malone: I know they can't dance.
    Norm Peterson: No Sammy, that's the, ah, that's the Amish.
    Sam Malone: Why can't Mormon's send flowers?
    Rebecca Howe: They can.
    Sam Malone: What are you talking about?
    Rebecca Howe: I just wish some one would send me some damn roses.
    Sam Malone: Why does it have to be a Mormon?
    Rebecca Howe: [exasperated] Oh!
    Sam Malone: Some people you just can't discuss religion.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Laura

      Ahahahahaha! Thanks for the comic relief. Classic.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:49 pm |
  3. Rick

    I saw the ad on the side of a Metro bus while I was driving and at first glance I thought "Why would some one agree to be on an ad that says I'm a moron!". I then realized what it really said, shortly after, my initial thought won out.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Ronnie W.

      Name-calling is really funny and real productive. That is exactly what society needs today in age. More hate and name calling.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:56 pm |
  4. Ancient Curse

    "Hi. Years ago, I decided to follow the teachings of a convicted con-artist who claimed to receive messages from God via a magic hat. We don't talk about that stuff, because it's pretty embarrassing. Instead, we like to paint a pretty picture and let people make their own assumptions. Talking about the Planet Kolob would just turn people off, and we need acceptance now more than ever. So no one talk about the magic underpants that protect us from knives and bullets, magic hats, magic glasses, people of color being an abomination, or any of the other stuff our faith teaches. Just look good, go on TV, say 'I'm a Mormon!' and that's it."

    November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • bondo

      Winning quote of the day

      November 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • S

      I'm sorry what religion are you speaking of??

      November 2, 2011 at 2:39 pm |
    • Daniel K.

      Perhaps it bothers you that people do join this church. Perhaps it bothers you that your church may be financially struggling. Perhaps a member of your church wouldn't give two years of their life to serve their church. Believe what you may, but you should at least respect the beliefs of others.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:45 pm |
    • Sam

      Theres nothing magic about any of those things. They are sacred, just like the garments and clothes worn by those preists in the old testament. Yeah that might sound strange if you are immersed in 2011 media trash like south park and family guy. But if you read your scriptures, pray, and listen to your heart AND mind. Suddenly those things make sense and you will realize that God is real and how he deals with us as his children and not the things you learn on the TV. And no self respecting mormon wouldnt talk about Kolob! We even have a song about it. Why be stuck on the name? Some people call it the gates peter waits at? I'm sure other religions have other names for it. You could fight, get angry, stomp on it, but Gods work will always go forth and we will with a smile and continue inviting you 🙂

      November 2, 2011 at 3:13 pm |
    • Sam

      Theres nothing magic about any of those things. They are sacred, just like the garments and clothes worn by those preists in the old testament. They remind us of the commitment we made to God, to be good people and to keep his commandments. Yeah that might sound strange if you are immersed in 2011 media trash like south park, family guy, and desperate housewives. But if you read your scriptures, pray, and listen to your heart AND mind. Suddenly those things make sense and you will realize that God is real and how he deals with us as his children and not the things you learn on the TV. And no self respecting mormon wouldnt talk about Kolob! We even have a song about it. Why be stuck on the name? Some people call it the gates peter waits at? I'm sure other religions have other names for it. You could fight, get angry, stomp on it, but Gods work will always go forth and we will with a smile and continue inviting you 🙂

      November 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  5. Snoot Pelt

    Glad to know their fighting the lily white component of their image. Sheesh.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Snoot Pelt

      They're dammit, not their.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • rue

      its damn you fool

      November 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  6. TranscendtheBS

    If i have to see one more "and I'm mormon commercial," I'm seriously gonna shoot myself in the head. I can't hit the mute button fast enough.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • rue

      transcend you are just so above it all, not ahhhhmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm

      November 2, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  7. bort

    Mormons...they're just like you and me!

    November 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  8. Luke

    Mormons are Morons guys, what they believe in after life is ridiciulous. How do you tell your kids, "Now if your really good in life you can be a god in another universe." <- Like that is believable :/

    November 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Rethink

      Mormons believe that, as the offspring of God, all people have the potential to become like God someday, just as any living has the potential to become like its parent. It's not so unreasonable, really.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  9. Rethink

    The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is doing something right. Note the following:
    1. It is debt-free.
    2. It pays cash for all of its property.
    3. It maintains a full-time missionary force of 50,000 people, spread throughout the world.
    4. It can afford to spend millions on PR.
    5. It generously funds the college educations of its adherents (through BYU, BYU Idaho, and BYU Hawaii).
    6. In spite of the above, it still manages to have millions upon millions left over to maintain its own worldwide welfare system–a system which has so much excess after providing for its own church members that it is capable of being among the fist on the scene at any natural disaster worldwide.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
    • Billythrowtheballatmyhead

      and gogo lies

      November 2, 2011 at 2:30 pm |
    • Daniel K.

      It's jealousy. Many people don't belong to a church as successful, so rather than admit their own church is struggling, they like to point out things about others.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:35 pm |
  10. Daniel K.

    So much hate fills these boards. The hate and partisanship that is in Washington is demonstrated here by ignorant bigots who pass judgement on something they know so little about.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:27 pm |
  11. Andrea M

    My brother in law was a missionary in Mexico, parents in law were missionaries in S. Korea 25 years ago. This isn't exactly news. Granted, I did have to pick my jaw off the floor the first time I saw a black missionary, but that was half shock, half laughing at him trying to preach to a crackie on a corner.
    I was raised to dislike organized religion, Mormonism in particular, but damn if they aren't some of the nicest people. My in laws are awesome and they raised a wonderful now-atheist son. The husband-wife team of missionaries that showed up to my place a few weeks ago with a birthday card and cupcake for my lapsed-Mormon man were very sweet, and possibly the most hilarious thing I've seen in years. I've never personally met a non-white at least middle class Mormon, but I'm sure they exist cause I know my bruv scored quite a few converts and logically they would happen to be Mexican.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
  12. Megan

    "(You won't be seeing the ads in Iowa, South Carolina or Florida. With Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman, both Mormon, competing in the Republican presidential primaries, the church says it wants to steer clear of politics.)"

    As a Mormon, it's too bad the LDS Church hasn't held to this policy when it's come to Prop 8 and other "gay" political matters.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • Michelle

      The church takes a stance from time to time on moral issues. But, it never tells people who to vote for in an election. And, it never tells its members which propositions to vote for either. The great thing about the church is, you have your own free agency to do and say what you will. Believe it or not, that is true.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:33 pm |
    • Rethink

      The Church refrains from endorsing particular candidates, and it only occasionally endorsed individual issues. Marriage is particularly important to Mormons, who believe that the whole point of life is to qualify to live with your family forever, after the grave. Liberal marriage is incompatible with the idea of linking families together–husband to wife, parents to children. I think the Church probably felt compelled to do its part to make a noisy withdrawal from the moral train that the world has hopped on lately.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
  13. rob

    The Mormon cult is a repulsive, immoral, disgusting, bigoted organization that spreads hate against others. And Mormon beliefs are laughable. And if they can spend tens of millions of dollars on hate campaigns, why can't they pay taxes? Why are taxpayers subsidizing governments services to this pathetic, faux "religion?" The sooner this cult is brought down, the better off the country will be.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Daniel K.

      Shut up Rob. They give millions to the poor. The feed the hungry. The send wheel chairs to kids in need all around the world. I don't think it's the Mormon church that is bigoted and brainwashed. I believe it is you. How do they spread hate?

      November 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
    • Michelle

      There has never ever been any hate filled anything from the Mormon church. You made that up.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:34 pm |
    • Sergei

      You have no idea what you talking about. You are the same kind of dumb-rear end that thinks illegals are sucking welfare and social benefits from "taxpayers". Yes, FLDS probably are the ones that take advantage of welfare, but no mainstream LDS members.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:36 pm |


      November 2, 2011 at 2:47 pm |
  14. waycist

    Only in a nation dedicated to the retardation of progress would appearing "lily white" be considered a liability.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • rue

      right on

      November 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  15. Just a girl

    If you're going to say what a Mormon believes, at least get it right. There aren't very many black people in the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, because they practice weekly in Salt Lake, and there aren't very many black people in Salt Lake to begin with. Church doctrine is given for our day now. Some things that arise now wouldn't have even been an issue, say 50 years ago. Polygamy was in effect when there wasn't a lot of men around and women needed someone to take care of them. We don't believe in polygamy now, that's the RLDS church, a completely different church broken off from ours. Do some research if you're going to bash.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • sheila

      how do you explain the complete lack of archaeological evidence that should support the stories in the 'book of mormon'? real question. and please don't say 'god' just washed it off the earth because people were not righteous enough to know about it.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:38 pm |


      November 2, 2011 at 2:43 pm |
    • Ronnie W.

      @ Rnikipp
      First off, don't type in all caps. Do you know how many internet etiquette laws you are breaking by typing in all caps? Well just one, don't type in all caps.
      Secondly, Polygamy is in the bible! If it is a sin how come they practiced it in the bible?

      November 2, 2011 at 3:03 pm |
    • Sergei

      "how do you explain the complete lack of archaeological evidence that should support the stories in the 'book of mormon'?"

      Sheila, did you been at any archeological site in Mexico, Central or South America? When I was young, I visited the city of "Cacaxtla", in the state of Tlaxcala, an important hub for goods and trade in central Mexico during the time of the Book of Mormon. In those days—in the beginning of the 80's—the archeologists uncovered a wall with ancient paintings that depict a war among two factions between darker skin and white skin people (check the link below).


      Now, the head archeologist explained to us that for some "unknown reason" the city was abandoned about the same years the Book of Mormon described the fall of the Nephites (white people) against the Lamanites (dark skin people). Also the city layout was very similar as the book of Alma Chapter 50 states describe...

      4 And he caused towers to be erected that overlooked those works of pickets, and he caused places of security to be built upon those towers, that the stones and the arrows of the Lamanites could not hurt them.

      5 And they were prepared that they could cast stones from the top thereof, according to their pleasure and their strength, and slay him who should attempt to approach near the walls of the city.

      6 Thus Moroni did prepare strongholds against the coming of their enemies, round about every city in all the land.

      Did ever had read the Book of Mormon? Cacaxtla have the same layout as the book of Alma described, but the important message it is not the archeological accuracy of the book, it is the spiritual message that stays with you all you life. Yes, here in the US there is not any "material proof" of this book. You have to travel south of the border 🙂

      November 2, 2011 at 3:31 pm |
  16. Ana

    I hate to see their commercial on a board along hwy 85 Atlanta, GA. I see no Baptist, Methodist or any other church popularizing themselves in such manner. They are truly SELLING THEMSELVES.
    "...and I am a Mormon", "...and I am a Muslim", "...and I am a Jewish", "...and I am a Christian."
    Sounds ridiculous to me to propagate a fact such as this one.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • rue

      no ana you are a fool

      November 2, 2011 at 2:29 pm |
  17. Annexian

    The Mormon church was entrenched in it's racism at a time when the religious leaders were daring to fight it in society. At a time when church pastors risked getting driven from town, even killed for speaking against the Klan and hatred the Mormons preached that black people were inferior, burned brown for either conspiring against JC or not joining him..the latter I think, watch the "Banned Mormon Cartoon" on YouTube.

    And they were perfectly fine in their lily white world. What about the Native Americans? I think they KILLED them ALL in their area, though I'm sure they'll deny it now. But if true at least they weren't prejudiced (among non-Mormons) in that regard, look up "The mountain Meadow Massacre" or whatever.

    But now they want to "Enter" modern society. A church that favors it's own members and considers the rest of society "The Beast". The ones that aren't rich bleed welfare, that's why they pretend to act and make token arrests when the Feds scream at their blatant polygamy/child marriages, they'd spit on "Statehood" in a second, but they need the WELFARE to eat. Then a few of the well to do (backed by church and family)come out and start up businesses, working non-mormons raw in labor or intellect then fire them every few years and the top jobs/rewards/bonuses only go to the "members of my church group".

    For the real richness of this, in Asia they have trouble getting converts in largely polyglot societies since all over be it Hindu, Islam, Pagan there's a warning of a demon called "Moroni" that was to come back to earth this time and try to hurt humanity as much as possible...

    I'll say one good thing; They don't have that many (very little compared to Catholics) accounts of molesting little brown boys or girls over there. But IMO besides that they are afraid of them/watch them it's only because of their entrenched racism. They are probably just nice enough to want shoe shiners and maids in their "Planetary Heaven", all those wives could use sub-humans to do the drudge work since it's a bodily (resurrected physically in another planet versus being energy/spirit) paradise.

    The Mormon church now has non-whites, whatever now?
    Like, until the 60s black people couldn't even be IN the church...?
    -And for G-d's sake it's NOT the "Mark of Cain"... It's "Cursed be thou Caanan" for one of Noah's sons was black but embarrassed him or something so he cursed him (and his children's children's children, like the Jews brought on themselves for Christ's murder later) and that was used to explain (and justify) blacks/slavery.

    Yeah, and the Republicans have gays and token blacks.

    Uh, there's a phrase; "useful idiots"...

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • rue

      so emotional, get a job silly

      November 2, 2011 at 2:28 pm |
    • Michelle

      You know what? One of my very best friends is an african american woman in the church. She shines no ones shoes and everyone she has come in contact with would shine hers. She is one of the finest women on this planet and your tirade spits in her face. You should be ashamed of yourself. And if she were near you, you'd get a good old fashioned african american woman's two cents. I'd love to see that!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:37 pm |
    • Sergei

      Like many people around here, you have no idea what are you talking about. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has nothing to do with the people you have been seeing in the news in the pass few years (Warren Jeffs for example) that are part of a different religion group know as Fundamentalist LDS church. Yes, those people are the ones who are in welfare, practice polygamy, and anything else you are talking about.

      But like many ignorant bunch here, you are trying to "blend" the LDS church with those other groups you are talking about. I really agree in some of your comments, but you are way out thinking that the LDS church is part of those groups. It is funny that you and many people here thinks that the church just in recent years had became "diverse", when in reality had been integrate people all over the world in the past 30 to 40 years.

      I knew the church outside the US 32 yr ago, so the vast majority of family, and many of my friends. Just recently people start to pay more attention to our faith, and people like you place their opinions like "experts" on the matter. Before you talk you should investigate more, not just putting trash on something you don't know anything about.

      November 2, 2011 at 2:55 pm |
  18. rue

    you will never see such racism and bigotry as the Godless liberal left, obama liberals unemployed sitting at the computer writing childish emotional things when they should be working, waiting on that unemployment check, silly people

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Brian

      So at 2:25 in the afternoon rue, why aren't YOU working???

      November 2, 2011 at 2:31 pm |
  19. reallypeeps

    Come one people...educate yourselves before you make comments that make you look like an idiot. Religions are weird. All of them. Thats why it takes faith to believe in them. Don't hate on people who want to have faith because it makes them feel good. Their religion may be weird, but most of the pejorative things being said about Mormons in these comments are false and taken completely out of context due to ignorance. You can do the same for practically every single religion in the world. Are they bad? Are their members bad people? Is what they're teaching going to hurt you?

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
    • Just a girl

      Thank you!!

      November 2, 2011 at 2:26 pm |
    • michelle

      There is only one GOD

      November 2, 2011 at 2:32 pm |
  20. michelle

    Everybody needs a job. After that she won't have any SS or health care. It's pretty sad.

    November 2, 2011 at 2:25 pm |
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About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.