Pod people: Religion and mass shootings

The Crossroads podcast this week was devoted to discussion of covering shootings. And in the time since the horrible shooting in Washington, D.C., took place, we now have reports of another horrific mass shooting in Kenya. There is some amazing journalism being done as this massacre unfolds. I’d recommend reading this New York Times interview of Tyler Hicks, a photographer who ran into the mall as thousands fled. The pictures that accompany the piece will make you gasp and cry, so be forewarned. But I think there is an argument to be made that we should see these images and have the appropriate reaction to them.

At this point in the process, Somali militant group al-Shabab has claimed responsibility. The New York Times slideshow says that gunmen entered the mall in a coordinated assault and told Muslims to leave. They then killed, according to reports, some 39 people and are holding an unknown number of people hostage. There are reports that 300 people have been injured, ranging in age from 2-years-old to 78-years-old. I want to say this is absolute madness, and I think you know what I mean, but it’s important for us to know that this is actually a terrorist attack. It has a political aim. It wasn’t a lone gunmen. These things mean a lot about how we respond to a crisis. And religion is a major part of that story, obviously.

So what about the Washington, D.C., shooter who killed 12 people working at the Navy Yard? When we say that story is absolute madness, it has similarities and differences from the Kenyan massacre. The gunman in the D.C. shooting, who is deceased, was said to suffer mental illness, such as hearing voices. He is reported to have had paranoid thinking. Does it matter to the families and loved ones of the 12 people whose lives he snuffed out that day? Perhaps not, but when we’re communicating information to target audiences, we have a different discussion about an American madmen than we do about Somali militants.

Host Todd Wilken asked about media reports identifying the shooter as having ties to Buddhism. I defended those journalistic reports as being key to beginning to understand who the shooter was. We talked about the pushback some had over those reports. The key is that reporters don’t blame an affiliation to a religion without facts to back it up. Wilken noted that the story seemed to be moving toward issues of mental health. The question is what role religion plays in that story and how well reporters will be able to tease that thread.

Back to the Kenyan situation, we have another example of religion being identified with the shooters. In this case it’s militant Islam. How should that be treated in this story? I’m going to go ahead and argue that it’s important while a situation is ongoing for reporters to lock down the “who, what, where and how” before they get to the “why.” The “who,” in this case, is a religion story. The “why” is, too. But we have some time to get that latter issue right. Basic facts are most important in the midst of the crisis.

It is for this reason that Reuters didn’t really dive deep about Islamic terrorism in this breaking story, but did mention religion in the headline and lede. In “Stand-off at Kenyan mall after Islamists kill 39 in ‘terrorist’ attack,” we learn:

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Did Aaron Alexis fall into a hole in ‘American’ Buddhism?

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It’s a sad comment on our age that, in the first tense hours after the Navy Yard shootings (just over a mile down 8th Street from my office), discussions about cause and motive kept circling back to questions about religion. Everyone was waiting for the shoe to drop, especially during the hours when mainstream media outlets were reporting that there might have been three gunmen.

One gunman? All kinds of causes leap to mind. Three gunmen? That’s a different story.

Of course, information later began to bleed into public media about the background of Aaron Alexis, the Navy Yard shooter who was killed in this tragic attack. One of the most perplexing facts was that he was, at least at one point in his adult life, a practicing Buddhist.

Early on, many asked a fair question: Was this information relevant? If it was relevant, what did this faith connection mean? Would the information automatically have been relevant if the shooter turned out to be a Muslim from, let’s say, Detroit? How about a true fundamentalist Christian from Kansas?

You can sense tense nerves in an early New York Times report:

In recent years, Mr. Alexis dated a Thai woman and began showing up regularly at Wat Busayadhammavanara, a Buddhist Temple in White Settlement, Tex., a Fort Worth suburb. He had Thai friends, adored Thai food and said he always felt drawn to the culture, said Pat Pundisto, a member of the temple answering the phone there. …He was a regular at Sunday services, intoning Buddhist chants and staying to meditate afterward. On celebrations like the Thai New Year in April, he helped out, serving guests dressed in ceremonial Thai garb the temple provided.

At the temple, he met Nutpisit Suthamtewakul, who went on to open the Happy Bowl Thai restaurant in White Settlement in 2011, said the restaurant owner’s cousin, Naree Wilton, 51, in a phone interview. Mr. Alexis helped out at the restaurant in exchange for food and a room in Mr. Suthamtewakul’s house.

One of my first questions was this: Is there a rite or ceremony that officially signals that a person has “converted” to Buddhism? Journalists were saying that Alexis was “interested” in Buddhism, when the facts suggested that he was at one point actively practicing the faith and connections to a specific worshipping community were central to his life in Texas.

Next question: What happened when he moved to the Washington, D.C., area?

When writing about the connections between a given faith and a person who is — for good or ill — in the news, it is always wise to document, to the greatest degree possible, how this believer was linked to that tradition by facts on the ground. What congregation? Active in worship? Close ties to key leaders? Was the person following the work of particular writers or speakers?

As the religion angle was fleshed out, journalists began discussing another interesting angle: Aren’t Buddhists committed to peace and non-violence? Veteran members of the religion team at the Washington Post produced an interesting story focusing on that angle. The top of the story is quite blunt:

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Was the Navy gunman Buddhist? Does it matter?

YouTube Preview ImageSome 12 people were killed by a gunman at Washington, D.C.’s Navy Yards on Monday morning. This being near the U.S. Capitol, reporters hit the scene early. Details came out slowly and sometimes incorrectly, even when sourced to D.C. police spokesmen. It was a difficult slog for reporters trying to figure out just what happened.

The Washington Post had a team of reporters on the scene, including Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein who lives nearby. She and the others did excellent work, getting stories from survivors that helped give a picture of the chaos and destruction that hit the military installation. At some point the shooter was identified as Aaron Alexis. Somewhat surprisingly, two journalists at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram actually knew him as their waiter at a favorite Thai restaurant. You can watch a video of them talking about the alleged shooter at the bottom of this story or embedded above.

Soon acquaintances were talking about what they knew about him, including that he was a regular worshiper at a Buddhist temple. Boorstein tweeted:

Suspect had been at least for a time a practicing Buddhist #navyyardshooting

She received some push back for tweeting this, which seems unfair. One person wrote, “Forgive me for thinking it’s of secondary importance at this early stage. It conflates his spirituality with his crime. I suspect deliberately.” Boorstein noted she was just sharing information, which is her job as a journalist.

It’s not that reporters always perfectly handle religious affiliation as it relates to news stories. But I think people would be hard-pressed to argue that religious affiliation is not a good piece of information to share, if well substantiated.

If the Post had been rushing to tie religious affiliation to motivation or make it the predominant fact of the case, that would be inappropriate — or would be inappropriate outside of any substantiating facts. But simply mentioning that someone had, at least for a time, been a practicing Buddhist? That’s simply sharing information that reporters have about someone of much interest. Again, this is all with the caveat that these pieces of information should be well sourced.

As for the Washington Post story on the alleged shooter, the religious affiliation was mentioned there, too. Here’s the relevant portion:

By Monday afternoon, a portrait of Alexis had begun to emerge. He lived until recently in Fort Worth, where he was seen frequently at a Buddhist temple, meditating and helping out. He was pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics as an online student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.

But Alexis also had been accused in at least two prior shooting incidents, one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle, according to police reports.

The story then spends many paragraphs discussing those prior shooting incidents. But it returns to the affiliation with the Buddhist temple. An assistant to the monks at the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center is interviewed:

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