The story of the day, of course, is the massacre in Norway. Thus, let’s start with a note from a GetReligion reader in Norway, which was attached to a URL for the main story in the New York Times:
The norwegian gunman Anders Behring Breivik (of whom we yet know very little) is being described as Norway’s “Timothy McVeigh,” and unlike McVeigh, apparently self-identifies as Christian. On top of that though, he seems pretty strange. He seems like a died-in-the-wool far-right extremist, but he’s also been described as a previous freemason, and then his cryptic twitter post is “one person with a belief is equal to the force of 100,000 who have only interests” by John Stuart Mill (not exactly famous for his theism).
So… this guy seems pretty screwed up. Would like to see some deeper discussion of what exactly this strange guy believes, as comment threads are already slamming “conservative christians” who are “like this guy.” …
Pray for Norway.
Here is my quick summary — focusing on journalism issues here, nuts-and-bolts reporting — of what journalists are putting into print.
Clearly this is an attack on the Norwegian government that is rooted in violent opposition to policies that Europeans usually call “multiculturalism.” In the end, this is rooted in opposition to waves of immigration into European nations by Muslims and, thus, in its extreme forms can truly be called Islamophobia. The man charged in the shooting has self identified as Christian, but, apparently, with no other evidence of beliefs or links to any known Christian group. His online writings focus on politics.
This massacre has taken place in the Internet age, so there is a chance that actual writings from this man may show up that express his views in detail and allow journalists to do the responsible thing — which is quote him. New details may emerge from the camp ground, the right-wing secular or Christian equivalent of the gunner shouting “Allahu Akbar” (which, in and of itself, would point to motive, but not prove it).
The New York Times, to put it bluntly, showed restraint and published a story that is based on the public facts as they are known right now:
OSLO – A lone political extremist bombed the government center here on Friday, killing 7 people, the police said, before heading to an island summer camp for young members of the governing Labor Party and killing at least 80 people.
The police arrested a 32-year-old Norwegian man in connection with both attacks, the deadliest on Norwegian soil since World War II.
The explosions in Oslo, from one or more bombs, turned the tidy Scandinavian capital into a scene reminiscent of terrorist attacks in Baghdad or Oklahoma City, panicking people and blowing out windows of several government buildings, including one housing the office of the Norwegian prime minister, Jens Stoltenberg, who was unharmed.
Later in this story, readers are given this summary of some of early leads on the alleged gunner/bomber:
After the shooting the police seized a 32-year-old Norwegian man on the island, according to the police and Justice Minister Knut Storberget. He was later identified as Anders Behring Breivik and characterized by officials as a right-wing extremist, citing previous writings including on his Facebook page.
The acting police chief, Sveinung Sponheim, said the suspect’s Internet postings “suggest that he has some political traits directed toward the right, and anti-Muslim views, but if that was a motivation for the actual act remains to be seen.”
Contrast that with the top of the Los Angeles Times report which, it appears, is based on some of the same sources — but with fewer direct attributions.
Yes, the word “fundamentalist” is in the lede.
Norwegian police said Saturday that the death toll from Friday’s attacks has risen to 92 and confirmed that they have arrested a suspect whom they described as a right-wing Christian fundamentalist.
In a news conference Saturday morning in Oslo, police confirmed that they had arrested Anders Behring Breivik, 32, on suspicion of orchestrating both the Oslo bombing and the youth-camp shooting rampage and had begun searching two apartments that he owns. …
Police would not comment on whether he acted alone but said no other arrests have been made. They said Breivik had no criminal record. They would not speculate on his motives, but said, based own his own Twitter and Facebook accounts, he appeared to be a right-wing Christian fundamentalist.
Note that the previously mentioned Twitter quote — singular, at this point — and these rambling writings that have been recovered, so far, add up to Protestant fundamentalism. Say what?
The use of the term “fundamentalist,” in this case, appears to be based on a quotation from a police official, not on actual facts that have been made public about Breivik at this time. Here is the quote in question, as used high in a Washington Post report:
“What we know is that he is right wing and he is Christian fundamentalist,” deputy police chief Roger Andresen said Saturday morning at a televised news conference. “We have not been able to link him up to an anti-Islamic group.” He said that the suspect had not been arrested before, and that police were unsure if he had acted alone.
Here’s an obvious question: What does “fundamentalist” mean in Norway? Is there a Norwegian word that is accurately translated “fundamentalist”? Does that word have specific content in that language and culture? Just asking.
A Twitter account with Breivik’s name and photo has a single post, from July 17: “One person with a belief is equal to the force of 100 000 who have only interests,” slightly misquoting British philosopher John Stuart Mill. A Facebook account linked to Breivik cites his favorite books as John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty, Franz Kafka’s The Trial, and George Orwell’s 1984, among others. Another interest is hunting. It was not possible to confirm if the Twitter and Facebook accounts and posts belonged to the suspect in the shooting.
Sure sounds like typical Protestant fundamentalist reading material to me — not.
In terms of the religion angle of this story, what are journalists looking for? I would say they are seeking the exact kinds of facts and leads that they would be seeking if this person was alleged to be a radical Muslim. We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.
Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?
In conclusion, at this early stage, let me recommend the following Poynter.org classic from media ethicist Aly Colon, which ran with the headline, “Preying Presbyterians?” It focuses on the news reports that emphasized that Paul Hill, executed in 2003 for killing an abortion doctor, was a “former Presbyterian minister.”
Colon notes that journalists failed to note what brand of Presbyterianism they were dealing with. I would also add that Hill had been thrown out of these ultra-orthodox Presbyterian bodies because of his theological justifications for violence. In other words, they decided that he was a heretic.
These words from Colon are must reading right now, as journalists look for facts, instead of labels, in Norway. Yes, I would be saying precisely the same thing if it was alleged that the suspect was tied to some form of radical Islam.
Let us attend:
When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe.
We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.
UPDATE: The New York Times has updated its story to include the police quote. However, I would still praise the way the Times has worded this reference, in comparison with, oh, the Los Angeles Times:
The Norwegian police on Saturday charged a man they identified as a right-wing fundamentalist Christian in connection with a bombing in central Oslo and a shooting attack on a nearby island that killed at least 92 people. Officials said the death toll could climb as they continued to search for the missing.
As stunned Norwegians grappled with the deadliest attack in the country since World War II, a portrait began to emerge of the main suspect in the case as a gun-loving Norwegian obsessed with what he saw as the threat of multiculturalism and Muslim immigration.
Key words, of course, are “they identified.”
One more thing: Is someone a “fundamentalist” to Norwegian elites if they reject the current leadership of the Church of Norway?
Image: A photo of Anders Behring Breivik that is currently being used on Norwegian television.