June 6th, 2013
10:37 AM ET

With his speech, valedictorian brings God to graduation

By Jessica Ravitz, CNN
[twitter-follow screen_name='JRavitzCNN']

(CNN) - Leading up to Saturday’s ceremony, Roy Costner IV prayed on what he was going to do. Liberty High School’s 2013 valedictorian would soon find himself in front of a microphone. He’d have a pulpit from which he could address his small community tucked away in South Carolina’s mountainous corner.

Only his father and pastor knew what was weighing on his heart and mind. Could he, should he, insert a prayer in his pre-approved graduation speech? He’d been told by the school principal that talk of religion wasn’t allowed, and so far he’d followed the rules.

But as the day approached, the 18-year-old couldn’t deny what he felt he needed to do.

“I wanted to stand up for God,” he explained Wednesday. “This is what God wanted me to do.”

So Costner, in cap and gown, stood behind the podium and ripped up his original speech. Before he gave shout-outs to coaches, cheerleaders and friends, there was something else he wanted to say.

“One thing I am certain of is we’re all a sum of our experiences, both good and bad,” he told his fellow graduates, a class of about 150. “All in all, those experiences, the people who mentored us, that we look up to, they have helped carve and mold us into the young adults that we are today. I’m so thankful that both of my parents led me to the Lord at a young age. And I think most of you will understand when I say, ‘Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name …”

The crowd before him began to cheer as he recited the Lord’s Prayer, drowning out a few verses. The school principal, sitting behind him, appeared uncomfortable and peered down at papers on her lap. The school district’s superintendent, a few seats over, couldn’t help but smile.

“I was tearing up,” Costner said, remembering the moment. “I was overwhelmed by the response. … The clapping was so loud I couldn’t hear myself talking into the microphone.”

His father told CNN's Piers Morgan on Thursday night he was overwhelmed with pride for his son. The younger Costner approached his dad a few days before the speech and showed him what he wanted to do.

"I said, 'Look, if you're doing this for political reasons, don't. But if you're doing it because you feel led to do it and you feel this is a part of your speech, then I want you to do it and I'll stand by you,' " Roy Costner III said.

Some who were there heaped on praise when talking to CNN affiliate WYFF. One called it “pretty impressive.” Another student said it “took a lot of courage” and that “people were proud that he stood up for what he believed in.”

What he believes is that Liberty, a town with three stoplights and a population of 3,000, “fully supports prayer.”

He also believes that organizations such as the Freedom From Religion Foundation, a Madison, Wisconsin, group dedicated to maintaining separation of church and state, should stop meddling in the affairs of the Pickens County School District. The foundation, over this past school year, has leaned on the district to keep Jesus and student-led prayers out of school board meetings.

Other concerns went beyond board meetings. This spring, the foundation’s staff attorney sent a lawyer representing the district a letter about complaints of alleged discriminatory hiring and religious promotion in another county high school and praise music being played in an elementary school classroom. The foundation said it learned of such practices by way of community members who are, in fact, not fully supporting prayer.

Costner said he set out to make a statement, one he hopes will inspire others to stand up, too, for what he sees as the good of this country.

“Taking prayer out of schools is the worst thing we could do,” he said.

If Costner went to a Christian school, there would be no discussion, said Annie Laurie Gaylor, co-president of the Freedom From Religion Foundation. But in public schools, even in a place where there may be a religious majority, prayers such as his are clearly unconstitutional, she said. What’s more, she added, what he did shows contempt for school district policy and a lack of sensitivity for his audience.

“It’s aggressive. It’s supremely rude,” she said. “This student is old enough to know that not everyone in the audience is Christian.”

But Costner, who was bouncing between interviews and heading to New York for TV appearances, said he counts atheists among his friends. He said that even though he doesn’t agree with their beliefs, he respects them – and that they do the same for him.

The elder Costner said his son had been inundated with messages of support, even from atheists.

He said he thinks the video of the speech resonated with people across the country because many people "really want something to hold onto for hope."

The son said he’s experienced no blowback from the district for what he did. And a district spokesman suggested Costner won’t.

“He’s a graduate now, so there’s nothing we can do about it even if we wanted to,” John Eby told WYFF. “But the bottom line is we’re not going to punish students for expressing their religious faiths.”

The district, Eby explained to CNN Friday morning, is in a “nearly impossible position.” He said federal law, under the Establishment Clause, is clear that public schools cannot “approve in advance a student’s prayer” or “carve out time specifically for religious expression.” But, under the Free Exercise Clause, he added, “we can’t punish students who do pray.”

Gaylor doesn’t expect there to be any punishment. But without issuing some sort of statement expressing disappointment and reiterating school policy, she said, the district is making a mistake.

“It’s one thing if a school doesn’t have a policy,” she said. “But when they do, they really need to enforce their policy because otherwise it’s just a wink and a nod.”

Eby has an answer to this.

“I do want to reiterate that we don’t approve rule breaking,” he said. “But we are very serious about protecting our students’ rights to express themselves religiously – or refuse to.”

- CNN Writer/Producer

Filed under: Belief • Christianity

soundoff (5,383 Responses)
  1. Bob

    He'll probably just end up in jail someday since he clearly can't respect authority.

    June 6, 2013 at 4:45 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      You mean like the founding fathers failed to respect the authority of the King and his representatives? Yes, evil thing, that failure to respect authority. Who knows where it could lead.....chaos, anarchy, dogs and cats living together! Oh where will it end??

      June 8, 2013 at 3:45 pm |
  2. Alias

    Religion get too much credit some days.
    I think this rebellious little boy would have done something else to get attention if prayer hadn't been such asn easy option.
    aka the arrogant child probably doesn't give 10% to church.

    June 6, 2013 at 4:34 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Since he likely isn't employed, I doubt that is relevant. But, I bet a dollar to a donut he has performed more volunteer work than you and you're probably ten years his senior.

      June 6, 2013 at 4:41 pm |
    • Alias

      Another logic fail Bill,
      Because you don't like what i think you want to make up nasty things about me.
      If you want to assume that i don't do charitable work, go ahead.
      It will make you feel better about yourself. Self-righteous people need to feel superior to others.

      June 6, 2013 at 4:56 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Sounds like a little projection to me Alias. Are you sure that isn't the root of your OP?

      June 6, 2013 at 5:08 pm |
    • derp

      @Bill Deacon

      "Ei inc umbit probatio qui d icit, non qui negat"

      June 6, 2013 at 5:20 pm |
  3. Chit


    The only state you're in is a state of insanity.

    You've become especially tedious since learning html. And none of it has made you mature one iota.

    June 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • lionlylamb


      "Tedious"? Your 'new word' for the day? Come back? No, don't. Why? Why not? Where's the beef? Who's your sugar daddy now? I could go on but what's the point? Insanity bleeds upon the saneness.

      June 6, 2013 at 4:58 pm |
  4. My Dog is a jealous Dog

    I am willing to bet that a good percentage of the believers on this blog are on anti-depressants. Prove me wrong.

    BTW – I take high BP meds, high Cholestrol meds, and a baby aspirin.

    June 6, 2013 at 4:20 pm |
    • Chad

      I'm amazed at how good I feel now that I've dropped those slick mind control drugs they tried to push on me. Very good. Very very good. Very powerful.

      June 6, 2013 at 4:26 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      @Chad – what were they?

      June 6, 2013 at 4:28 pm |
    • atheists hate this

      It is impossible to scientifically measure if an all-powerful, all-knowing God greater than our ability to measure or comprehend exists or not.
      I submit that anyone who has absolute faith in the impossibility of God's existence either has a mental disorder from a past terrible, traumatic religious experience, or, is somewhat of a lemming who became brainwashed by another atheist and follows what they say like an obedient dog.

      June 6, 2013 at 5:15 pm |
      • LaLa

        Why do you christians insist that you have a right to force your Dogma on others?
        You would have protested to the nth degree if this had been a muslim student, or a buddhist student, or
        even an atheist student?
        You are not the only religion in the world. If you are what Christianity makes of people, I would rather be
        a follower of the Spagetti monster.

        September 2, 2013 at 2:13 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      Don't underestimate the lure of service to the flesh compounded by rationalization. Very heady

      June 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      You are very wrong on my account – I had no traumatic experience, and I was an atheist before I even knew what that was. I just knew a fairy tale when I heard one.

      June 6, 2013 at 5:18 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      You believers are so bigoted when it comes to non-believers – we are either damaged, or brainwashed, or tempted by the flesh.
      I was 8 years old and didn't even have pubes when I REALIZED that religion was a bunch of BS – everyone I knew was religious, and I had a normal rural upbringing.

      You simply cannot understand how someone can simply reject your retarded views. (Don't go all PC on me again, because your views are retarded in the correct dictionary definition of the word – I would rather spend the whole day conversing with a Downs Syndrome person than spend 10 seconds with one of you nutjobs)

      June 6, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • In Santa we trust

      "It is impossible to scientifically measure if an all-powerful, all-knowing God greater than our ability to measure or comprehend exists or not."

      Equally it's impossible to know if such a god exists and with no evidence to support it why believe it?
      I submit that anyone who has absolute faith in god's existence either has a mental disorder from a past terrible or is somewhat of a lemming who became brainwashed by another believer and follows what they say like an obedient dog."

      June 6, 2013 at 5:25 pm |
    • My Dog is a jealous Dog

      @Chad – not comfortable telling us what meds you were on?

      June 6, 2013 at 5:30 pm |
  5. GodFreeNow

    The Athiest's Prayer

    Our Father who art likely a psychological figment of our imagination based on our biological fathers,
    Who art likely in residence in the same part of the brain that produces the god concept,
    Hallowed be my capacity to reason all of this out and the courage to accept it.

    Thy kingdom is not really tempting for me, so don't let it come. (I mean, I just spent a month with my family… I couldn't imagine an eternity.)
    Thy will is really inconsequential to me, because statistically speaking those things we classify as your will are really no different than things we classify the will of a magical bunny whether that be on earth or in my imagination.

    You can give the daily bread to those too lazy or too unfortunate to get it themselves. Besides, I'm kind of doing a gluten-free thing now. I'm not religious about it or anything, but honestly, we can all do with a little less bread and a little more veggies.

    You don't need to bother with forgiving my debts because as an adult, I assume full and sole responsibility for my debts—financial or otherwise.

    As far as me forgiving my debtors, it kind of depends on who it is. For example, I may forgive my brother's debt to me, but I'm certainly not going to forgive BP for that disastrous oil spill. You really need some common sense when applying forgiveness. It's not so black and white as you portray things to be.

    About temptation, I don't do anything that I don't want to do. Life is full of temptations, and I enjoy most of them.

    Deliver us from evil? That almost made milk come out of my nose. Since the time of your original prayer, you've had 2000 years to get this right. On the whole, things have gotten much worse. Good news though for you, humans are making great strides in understanding "the evil gene." In the not too distant future, we could find ourselves mostly evil free. But you tried, so… Good on ya!

    I try not to trespass, so I hope you'll forgive my reasoning self its dalliances in your region of my brain. Though again, if someone is trespassing in my house, I'm going to be too busy protecting my family to be thinking about forgiveness. Like I said above, common sense.

    In sum, you keep your kingdom, I'll keep mine.

    June 6, 2013 at 4:17 pm |
    • Bill Deacon

      "In sum, you keep your kingdom, I'll keep mine."

      I think that is an acceptable response. Good luck!

      June 6, 2013 at 4:42 pm |
    • derp

      @Bill Deacon

      "Ei inc umbit probatio qui d icit, non qui negat"

      June 6, 2013 at 5:21 pm |
    • Rob

      Whatever, there, pal. It amazes me how threatened you atheists are by religion. You sure feel the need to go out of your way to try and condemn (or at least poke fun at) others who DO have religious and/or spiritual beliefs. Hey, if it makes you happy knock yourself out, but you might try living your own life and not having to pull others down based on their beliefs. Guess what? Religious people don't spend a ton of time trying to convince you that you're wrong, do they?

      June 6, 2013 at 11:50 pm |
    • God Now

      Ugh! What horrible beliefs and stance these Heathen people have. Is it any wonder they are so angry at God knowing deep down that in their self-imposed dis-belief they have imperiled their very lives and soul for all Eternity!

      June 7, 2013 at 10:04 am |
  6. Tom, Tom, the Other One

    I anticipate a full recovery in this bright young man if he goes to a decent school that provides him with good role models and mentors. Religion cannot withstand critical thinking in a healthy mind.

    June 6, 2013 at 3:56 pm |
    • Kara

      You're so full of s h* t Tom

      June 6, 2013 at 4:02 pm |
    • Greg

      Wow, Kara, what an insightful comment. You must be a Christian to say something that mean.

      June 6, 2013 at 4:03 pm |
    • Agnostic

      Greg, you must be a bigot to say something so biggoted against a specific religious group because of one person's comment.

      June 6, 2013 at 4:43 pm |
    • Athy

      Kara really has a gift of saying cute things, doesn't she. Her IQ must be way up there, maybe in the high 30s.

      June 6, 2013 at 6:29 pm |
  7. faith

    the "state" endorsed no religion

    June 6, 2013 at 3:46 pm |
    • Science

      Hey faith share with chad too !

      Your Pretty Face is Going to Hell

      Next Showing: June 07 @ 12:45 AM


      June 6, 2013 at 3:50 pm |
    • I'm not a GOPer, nor do I play one on TV

      Who said that it did?

      June 6, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
    • here is something you did not realize

      Allowing it is an endorsement my dear. And that is not what our founder wanted. They know the tyranny of the majority is a major shortcoming in pure democracies. That is why the USA is not one of those. Instead, we protect smaller groups from being bullied, ignored, stepped on, intimidated, dominated or indoctrinated by the majority. It's a huge improvement and one aspect of this country that is quite amazing. What is sad is that zealous groups, like the one that has misled you, ignore this important information because it is inconvenient when your goal is brainwashing large body's of people to get money from them. Simple fact of life.

      June 6, 2013 at 8:22 pm |
  8. Alias

    Clearly one of the things they taught that child was how to kiss ass.
    His job prospects just got brighter with many businesses in that area.

    June 6, 2013 at 3:37 pm |
    • Doobs

      Yeah, he's got that blind obedience thing down. He'll be on the fast track to middle management at the local Chik-fil-A.

      June 6, 2013 at 3:49 pm |
  9. derp

    put some soap in his/her mouth. naughty naughty LinCa

    June 6, 2013 at 3:24 pm |
  10. LinCA


    Just so that everyone can see the context of my post, here is a link to it:

    June 6, 2013 at 3:23 pm |
  11. Reality

    Just someone else suffering from the Three B Syndrome, i.e. Bred, Born and Brainwashed in religion and this case Christianity. There are easy and free cures upon written request.

    June 6, 2013 at 3:09 pm |
    • lionlylamb

      Parentally bred yet still young social bullies bullying others within their generational rankings does set the stages for future times when socialized bullying becomes the accepted societal normality. The dilapidations of many religions will give rise towards incredulous social instabilities, Some great and some not so much. God knows well how much I do yearn for my spiritualized socialistic freedoms to freely choose within all mannerisms of socially chosen ritualized ambiences found within my personally individualistic behaviorisms. Smoke whatever one wants while others who drive autos spew noxious fumes out their tailpipes. What the hell's difference does it really matter how we pollute when everyone pollutes?! It's in our sewage too!

      June 6, 2013 at 3:39 pm |
  12. derp

    I think I'm going to retire from the belief blog and get back in touch with reality for a while......

    said no atheist ever

    June 6, 2013 at 3:03 pm |
  13. Thoth

    Another poor child brainwashed by ignorance and conjecture. Is this really a shock coming from SC?

    June 6, 2013 at 2:56 pm |
  14. RGE50

    Nothing of interest here... as usual, think I'll go over to Fox maybe some intellectual conversation there instead of trash.

    June 6, 2013 at 2:47 pm |
    • Truth Prevails :-)

      lol, feeling a little persecuted?

      June 6, 2013 at 2:54 pm |
  15. lionlylamb

    Honey Badger Don't Care,

    My states of relativisms are relationally spatial realities and are not binding to worldly myopic vespers such as does your rented realism dare ventures upon.

    June 6, 2013 at 2:40 pm |
  16. Honey Badger Don't Care

    Like the timeout that you've taken from reality a long time ago?

    June 6, 2013 at 2:25 pm |
  17. ME II

    Inappropriate, but ultimately not really important.

    June 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • sam

      I agree. It's not news; this kind of thing happens all the time, especially in the bible belt. Big deal.

      June 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm |
  18. Jim

    all it takes is one prayer to shake the demons

    June 6, 2013 at 2:05 pm |
    • ME II

      How can you tell?

      June 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      Becuase if there's one thing malevolent, supernatural being can't abide it's sycophantic, one way conversations with the Divine.

      June 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • Mike Biltmore

      The demons can froth and convulse all they want, that ain't stopping the faithful from praying.

      June 6, 2013 at 2:12 pm |
    • ME II

      @Mike Biltmore,
      How could you possibly know that?

      June 6, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • sam

      That's probably because demons don't actually exist.

      June 6, 2013 at 2:14 pm |
    • Doc Vestibule

      What is the demons walk backwards down the stairs while spewing torrents of green goo?
      The power of Christ compels you!

      June 6, 2013 at 2:23 pm |
    • sam stone

      jim and mike: if god is omniscient, how is prayer not blasphemy? does the prayer purport to know better than god?

      June 6, 2013 at 3:17 pm |
    • Demon

      Actually this type of breaking rules and defying authority far out-weighs that prayer.
      This rebellious little wimp will be fun to play with when he fails at his own religion and gets sent to hell.

      June 6, 2013 at 3:41 pm |
    • sam stone

      jim or mike: would you care to answer my question, or are you just another blathering post and run christian coward?

      June 6, 2013 at 4:08 pm |
    • Arthur Bryant

      Yeah, Satan just called and said he's pooping his red drawers. Now his tail is brown and red. How embarrassing for the Prince of Darkness.

      June 8, 2013 at 3:59 pm |
  19. Jesus freaker

    Will the school administration sit quietly as an atheist valedictorian decides to give a two minute talk about the nonexistence of God?

    June 6, 2013 at 2:04 pm |
    • Guy

      This. A thousand times this.

      June 6, 2013 at 2:10 pm |
    • sam

      They probably would have booed him off and then burned him at the stake.

      June 6, 2013 at 2:21 pm |
    • Alias

      Do you really think any of them were listening?

      June 6, 2013 at 3:43 pm |
  20. oOo

    Why am I not surprised....

    (from Newsweek)

    Palmetto Politics
    Mar 10, 2010 7:00 PM EST
    South Carolina: We've got Mark Sanford and Joe Wilson. And don't even get us started on history.

    In the wake of New York Gov. David Paterson's latest scandal, The Economist said "Dysfunctional Albany…is frequently cited as the nation's worst state government—a ti-tle for which there is intense competi-tion." We at NEWSWEEK are fans of competi-tion, so seven of our staffers made the case for states with which they're intimately familiar. Here Newsweek.com Managing Editor Carl Sullivan argues for his home state of South Carolina.

    "Yet another reason to be proud of my home state." I've lost count of the number of times I've made that post to Facebook, followed by a link to the latest salacious political embarrassment involving South Carolina. We may not stand a chance in the battle for "most corrupt state" ti-tle, but boy do we know how to stay in the headlines. Just a few recent examples:

    How could such a small state (population 4.5 million) generate so many humdingers in the last year alone? Well, the Palmetto State has a long history of volcanic political eruptions, as I recall from my mandatory 8th grade state-history course. Just weeks after Abraham Lincoln was elected president, South Carolina was the first to secede from the Union. A few weeks after Lincoln's inauguration, Confederate forces in Charleston fired the first shots of the Civil War.

    So Rep. Joe Wilson's outburst wasn't that surprising to me—and pretty tame compared to at least one of his predecessors. In 1856, Rep. Preston Brooks of South Carolina marched into the Senate and attacked Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts with a cane until the bloodied Sumner lost consciousness. (It took Sumner three years to recover, when he returned to the Senate.) Like Brooks (who was hailed as a hero at banquets held in his honor), Wilson no doubt scored political points back home for interrupting the president—with a factually false assertion, by the way (Obama was not, in fact, lying when he said that health-care reform would not cover illegal immigrants). Still, many South Carolinians of all political stripes winced. Mama always said, "An invited guest never raises his voice or embarrasses his host." Especially if your host is the president of the United States.

    Another thing you don't do is air your dirty marital laundry in public (Too much information, Gov. Mark Sanford.) Illicit affairs have a long history in South Carolina, though they're usually a poorly kept gentleman's secret (wink, wink, nudge, nudge). The state's longtime patriarch, Sen. Strom Thurmond, was rumored for years to have fathered out-of-wedlock children. But you didn't read about it in the papers—at least until after his death. Only then was it confirmed that Thurmond (who ran for president on a segregationist ticket in 1948, and who holds the record for the longest filibuster ever conducted by a single senator, in opposition to the 1957 Civil Rights Act) had fathered a child with a 16-year-old African-American housekeeper when he was 22. Compared to Sanford, Thurmond (who's still a practical deity in the state) was a model of discretion. (In the interest of full disclosure, I interned for Sen. Thurmond just after high-school graduation.)

    One factor that helped Sanford avoid impeachment: the man who would replace him. Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer already had a reputation for reckless behavior when in January he compared helping poor people to feeding stray animals. "My grandmother…told me as a small child to quit feeding stray animals," Bauer said during a town hall meeting. "You know why? Because they breed. You're facilitating the problem if you give an animal or a person ample food supply. They will reproduce, especially ones that don't think too much further than that." Naturally, a number of state Republicans weren't too excited about the prospect of a Gov. Bauer. "Quietly, some lawmakers worried that ousting Sanford would give Bauer an unfair fundraising advantage in the 2010 governor's race," reported The State newspaper.

    Saying stupid things isn't unique to Republicans from my home state. Former Democratic senator Fritz Hollings had a penchant for lobbing unforgettable lines—made all the more jaw-dropping because they came with his elegant patrician accent. Speaking about international conferences, Hollings once said, "Everybody likes to go to Geneva. I used to do it for the Law of the Sea conferences and you'd find these potentates from down in Africa, you know, rather than eating each other, they'd just come up and get a good square meal in Geneva."

    South Carolina, it seems, is never too far from the seedier side of national political conversation. In the first presidential election for which I was eligible to vote, 1988, political consultant and native son Lee Atwa-ter was working his magic against Michael Dukakis. Remember the infamous Willie Horton ad that played on racially tinged fear of crime? Atwa-ter atoned for his political sins before dying of a brain tumor in 1991. But his take-no-prisoners style of campaigning lived on in his colleague Karl Rove. Just this week, Rove denied having anything to do with a nasty whisper campaign in South Carolina's 2000 Republican presidential primary. Someone was spreading the false rumor that Sen. John McCain had fathered an illegitimate black child, which helped McCain lose to George W. Bush. (Why doesn't any of this stuff ever happen in North Carolina?!)

    And even the nation's "first black president," Bill Clinton, got into hot water with some black voters for dismissing Barack Obama's victory in the South Carolina primary by noting that Jesse Jackson had also won the state, and well that didn't amount to much, now did it? (Speaking of Jackson, he was born in Greenville, S.C., so we might as well accept him as an honorary Sandlapper. Which gives us the opportunity to recall Jackson's derogatory reference in 1984 to Jews as “Hymies” and New York City as "Hymietown.")

    As for the 66-year-old deputy assistant attorney general found with a stripper and se-x toys during his lunch break in a secluded part of a cemetery in the state capital last fall? Mama always said, "If you can't say something nice, don't say nuthin' at all."


    I'm thinking Stephen Colbert's parents lied to him. There's no way he's from S.C.

    June 6, 2013 at 1:52 pm |
    • oOo

      Lol – ok I admit that last quip made little sense. SC evidently was born in D.C., but grew up in S.C.

      June 6, 2013 at 1:57 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.