Faith and ghosts in Navy Yard victim story

Faith and ghosts in Navy Yard victim story September 18, 2013

I sympathize with any journalist called upon to report on victims’ loved ones in the wake of a tragedy such as Monday’s Navy Yard shooting rampage.

From too many years of personal experience — starting with weeks spent on the victims’ beat after the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing — I know that it’s a delicate, gut-wrenching assignment.

I offer that caveat before critiquing a front-page sidebar from Tuesday’s Washington Post — the first edition published after the mass shooting. I recognize fully that I am not privy to the specific circumstances or difficulties involved in reporting — and editing — this story on deadline late at night.

The 800-word story focused on one victim’s family and featured this print headline:


A family clings to phones, prayer

With that headline, you assume that the story will contain a strong faith angle, and that is the case.

Let’s start at the top:

All day and into the night, they waited for news. Inside a three-bedroom home in Prince George’s County, Sylvia Frasier’s parents and siblings gathered, hoping to hear something about her fate.

The family had not been able to reach Sylvia, a 53-year-old network security administrator with the Naval Sea Systems Command, since they’d heard about the mass shooting at the Washington Navy Yard on Monday morning.

The Frasiers prayed and watched the live TV coverage. They clutched their iPhones and clasped one another’s hands every time a cellphone rang or beeped with a text message. Their minister came over, and everyone sat on the couches and sang from the Bible.

If I’m the editor, I ask for clarification on that phrase “sang from the Bible.” What exactly were they singing? A specific Scripture? A familiar song?

In my Church of Christ tradition, we sing from memory or from hymnals but not directly from the Bible. I asked my GetReligion colleagues about it, and Mollie, a Lutheran, replied, “It confused me, too. We sing all of our psalms, but we use particular chant tones to do so and they’re not in the Bible.”

More glimpses of the family’s religious background enter the story later on:

At the Frasier family home in Lanham, where Bibles adorn the bookshelves and crosses hang from the walls, Edmonds and her parents burned with questions: Is Sylvia alive? Injured? They were relying on news conferences, evening news reports, and phone calls and texts from other siblings searching the Navy Yard and designated parking lots for Sylvia.

And finally, there’s this reference:

At 7:30, the family’s minister, David Harrington, stopped by and led the family in prayer. They turned the TV volume down while they implored God for help, but kept the set on in case there was news.

Certainly, I’m pleased that the writer recognized the importance of including the family’s faith — and its role in their grueling day — in this Page 1 story.

At the same time, I wish that the Post had provided a few more specific details, such as the name of the family’s church.

Harrington is mentioned as the minister, but no church affiliation is reported. One reader noted that there’s a former state senator in that area by that name and wondered if perhaps the reporter got confused. Identifying the minister more fully would help alleviate that confusion.

Nonetheless, it’s a compelling story, one that provides a closeup portrait of one family’s nightmare. I pray both for the family and for the reporter thrust into such a hypersensitive, emotional scenario.

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