A gunman’s shout: ‘I am opposed to social conservatism!’

Long ago, before the cooling of the earth’s crust, I took my first news copy-editing class as a young journalism student at Baylor University. Anyone who has worked as a copy editor know that one of the first things you learn is how to keep bad stuff out of print.

There are various kinds of bad stuff, of course.

There’s stuff that violates the principles found in the bible of daily journalism, the Associated Press Stylebook. Take that rule governing the use of the word “fundamentalist,” for example. There’s stuff that’s just plain bad, such as risque puns (think back page of The Columbia Journalism Review). There’s stuff that violates style principles that have been developed at the local level. For example, what do you call a person who lives in Charlotte, N.C.? Hint, this person is not a “Charlatan.” She or he is a “Charlottean.

Finally, there is stuff that is considered “bad” by your local publisher or your editors — even if they do not want to admit it. Some of these concerns are valid. Some are a bit harder to live with.

There was a legendary story in Texas about a reporter at a newspaper that, for a long time, kept it’s policy forbidding any use of the word “rape” in stories. This reporter heard a woman at a crime scene shouting, “I was raped! I was raped!” Well, as the story goes, the editor spiked the quote. Thus, in anger, the reporter wrote — in warped loyalty to local style — that the woman had shouted, “I was sexual molested! I was sexually molested!” A copy editor left it in. Both, according to the legend, were fired.

So why do I bring this up? I recalled this anecdote while reading the top of The Washington Post report on the shooting at the Family Research Council. This particular story — after hours of work catching up on the event — is actually pretty good, but has some strange quirks.

Maybe it’s just me, but there was a strange void at the very top of this:

An armed intruder, spouting opposition to social conservatism, walked into the Washington headquarters of the Family Research Council on Wednesday and shot a security guard before the wounded guard and others wrestled him to the floor and subdued him until police arrived, authorities said.

They identified the suspect as Floyd Lee Corkins II, 28, of Herndon, who has a master’s degree from George Mason University’s College of Education and Human Development. Corkins was in FBI custody Wednesday night; authorities had not filed charges against him.

Now, I understand that the authorities have almost certainly clamped down on witnesses talking to the press. Still, let me ask the obvious: What does “spouting opposition to social conservatism” mean? Surely this gunman didn’t walk in there shouting, “I am opposed to social conservatism! I am opposed to social conservatism!” Were his words a bit more pointed than that? Will Post editors print them?

Journalism is all about the quest for specifics, for telling details. Thus, it is rather strange that the Post team went rather far into this story before mentioning this colorful fact about this event:

Two law enforcement officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the investigation is ongoing, said the gunman entered the lobby carrying a satchel, with a bag from a Chick-fil-A restaurant inside. The Atlanta-based fast-food chain has been embroiled in controversy in recent weeks after its president spoke out against same-sex marriage. The Family Research Council also opposes such unions. …

Corkins had been volunteering at a community center on U Street NW for gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender people, according to officials there.

So what was Corkins shouting? Think about this in journalism terms: If a gunman who was a volunteer at a fundamentalist Christian church had walked into the lobby of a major gay-rights organization, with an empty Oreos bag stashed away on his person, would reporters want that info right up top in the report? Would they want to include the actual words that this firebrand was shouting?

I would think so. I certainly would want those details reported accurately and fairly — in the lede or soon after.

The Post story, meanwhile, did a fine job of getting informed and accurate reaction quotes and commentary from people on the cultural left and right. Gay-rights leaders were quick to reject this use of violence and conservatives were given a chance to offer their opinions on the question of whether this attack was a political crime, or even a “hate crime,” under the laws of the District of Columbia. Like I said, there’s lots of good daily journalism in this piece.

But the top of the story? Rather vague and mushy — especially since there was crucial info stuck (some would say “buried”) further down. I mean, which is more relevant to this story? That Corkins had a master’s degree from George Mason University or that he was a volunteer in an organization that totally opposed the Family Research Council?

Meanwhile, if you are interested in the political and cultural overtones of the arguments about the media coverage of the shooting, let me recommend this article by religion-beat pro David Sessions at The Daily Beast. It has that whole Newsweek/Daily Beast progressive-tone thing going on, but contains tons of links and good info.

Also, check out this early piece by Timothy Dalrymple, the Harvard guy who leads the Patheos evangelical channel. He is also a major player in assembling the website’s new religion and politics channel, which is the new home for your GetReligionistas.

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • The Old Bill

    I dunno Tmatt, On CBS, Bob Schieffer reported, “Police say that the suspect made negative comment about the council’s work just before the shooting.”

    How much more specific do you want?

    • David

      What is the council’s work? What are their goals?

  • John D

    Fifth paragraph, first sentence. “Its,” not “it’s.” Thank you.

    And as much as I deplore violence against anyone (given that gay people lag only behind Jews and blacks in being victims of bias crime — and that’s with not all states reporting), I saddened that a supposed supporter of gay rights took this wrong and indefensible way of expressing his anger at the FRC.

    Like TMatt, I would like to know what witnesses can construct of his actual words.

  • Pingback: “Get Religion” Comes to Patheos!

  • Thomas A. Szyszkiewicz

    The Post finally gave us an answer here: http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/crime/mother-of-security-guard-shot-in-dc-happy-to-hear-him-called-hero/2012/08/16/531ed060-e7a1-11e1-8487-64e4b2a79ba8_story.html: “I don’t like your politics.” They did mess this line up: “Joe Carter, a senior editor of Action Institute…” That’s Acton Institute. And they did get back and forth between FRC and SPLC on the latter’s use of “hate group” terminology. Overall, not a bad story.

  • Howard

    “If a gunman who was a volunteer at a fundamentalist Christian church had walked into the lobby of a major gay-rights organization, with an empty Oreos bag stashed away on his person …” then I for one would assume he had snacked on them before walking into the lobby. My question regarding the Chick-fil-A bag would be, “What did he do with the chicken?” More to the point, “How did he get the bag?” Did he wait in line and buy it? If so, that’s an incoherent protest, from an admittedly not altogether coherent man. Did he rummage through someone else’s trash to get it? If so, did anyone see him doing that and think it was a bit odd?

  • http://ecben.blogspot.com Will

    Well, CNN reports that “Inside the backpack, police found 50 rounds of 9mm ammunition and 15 Chick-fil-A sandwiches, the complaint says.” (http://www.cnn.com/2012/08/16/us/dc-shooting/index.html)

    Perhaps Howard is envisioning a “fried chicken defense”?

  • http://www.post-gazette.com Ann Rodgers

    If you read all the way to the end, this story was cobbled together from the work of multiple reporters all working on bits and pieces of the story on deadline. When that happens you often find information chucked into it in peculiar ways. One of the editors who put it together, Mary Pat Flaherty, won a Pulitzer Prize when she worked for the Pittsburgh Press and she is one of the finest most fair-minded journalists I have ever had the pleasure to work with. I think that’s reflected in the various quotes that they have. The “social conservativism” thing seems to be a paraphrase of information from a police report, which means the Post probably had no idea exactly what he said. I’m not going to fault them on their deadline reporting.

  • tmatt

    As my post said, I realize that the real quotes may take time.
    However, I disagree with you on the issue of how they used the material THAT THEY HAD. I found it rather bizarre, in fact, and certainly not the way they would have handled bio info in story about a similar crime, linked to such a hot issue, in another setting.

  • Hieronymus

    Well, call me paranoid but I guess he was planning to leave the Chick-fil-A sandwiches by the dead bodies – 15 mortal hits for 50 rounds is a reasonable estimate…

  • Will

    Stories are now claiming that he said “I don’t like your politics” before opening up.

  • tmatt

    I read that. I believe that is still, in coverage, being cited as paraphrase language from a police report.
    No sign of witnesses talking about what he actually said.

  • MJBubba

    I heard Bryan Fischer on American Family Radio discuss this story yesterday, including remarks about media coverage. He had praise for ABC for fair reporting, found fault with NBC and CBS for neglecting the story by providing 15-second summaries, and criticized CNN for slanted coverage.