Ghosts in toddler's tragic death?

Salt-and-pepper hair. Western-style mustache. Cowboy hat. Thomas Mitchell looks like my kind of editor. I met "Mitch" a few years ago at a Poynter Institute seminar on blogging. He impressed me as no-nonsense, slightly gruff and firmly committed to old-school journalism -- and I mean that in all the best ways.

Yet here he was, the seasoned editor of the Las Vegas Review-Journal, taking time to educate himself and try to figure out how to harness the digital age for journalistic purposes -- and survival. When we talked, I discovered that we shared an affection for fried catfish, not to mention similar Texas upbringings. He, like me, grew up in non-instrumental Churches of Christ -- although he left at some point.

And, best of all, when he talked about journalism, you could tell that Mitchell's passion and commitment to our profession came from his heart. He was -- and is -- a real newspaperman's newspaperman.

I thought about Mitchell as I examined how the Sin City newspapers -- the Review-Journal and the Las Vegas Sun -- covered the tragic death of 2-year-old Christian Cunningham, the youngest son of quarterback-turned-pastor Randall Cunningham. Even though it's been a while since Mitchell and I traded e-mails, I hoped I wouldn't need to give his publication a, shall we say, negative review.

Good news (for me): The Review-Journal, which broke the news of Christian Cunningham's death Tuesday, passed its GetReligion test. Especially when grading on a curve because of the difficult circumstances of covering such a heartwrenching story on deadline.

The Associated Press, which relayed the news to most of the country, stuck with the facts and let religion ghosts haunt its relatively short coverage of the boy's death:

LAS VEGAS -- The 2-year-old son of former NFL star quarterback Randall Cunningham has died in what authorities on Wednesday called an apparent backyard hot tub accident.

The Clark County coroner's office identified the child as Christian Cunningham, and said the cause of death was pending.

Las Vegas police Officer Marcus Martin, a department spokesman, said the death appeared to have been an accidental drowning, but authorities were still investigating.

Cunningham, 47, is an ordained minister and pastor of a church six blocks off Las Vegas Boulevard that he runs with his wife, Felicity. Christian Cunningham was the youngest of their four children.

Contrast that with the Review-Journal, which opened its initial story on the tragedy with a focus on Randall Cunningham's "church family":

Skip Jourdan, who plays guitar at Remnant Ministries, has missed only three Sundays in three years.

He knew where he had to be Tuesday night.

Christian Cunningham, who would have been 3 in December, died after being found floating in the backyard hot tub, according to friends of the family. Randall Cunningham performs baptisms in the hot tub at his home, which is near the church.

Jourdan was among 30 to 40 church members who quickly assembled at the church on Windmill Lane as news spread about the death of Randall Cunningham's 2 1/2-year-old son. Cunningham, the former UNLV and NFL star quarterback, is pastor of Remnant Ministries.

"This is why you have a church family," Jourdan said. "This is why you belong to something like this. I can't imagine trying to go through something like this and not having a church family. Who are you going to turn to?"

On a breaking story, did you see what the Review-Journal managed to capture? The fact that church members would want to be together and likely gather at the church. The fact that Cunningham performed baptisms in the same hot tub. The fact that a "church family" would come together to deal with the tragedy.

But keep reading. The Review-Journal report does not include religion at the expense of other important elements. Like the AP, the local story provides details on the police investigation and questions surrounding the death. While a wire service has a different mission than a local newspaper, the AP story would be more engaging if allowed a bit of real life -- real faith even -- into its text. Instead, we get an inverted-pyramid police report.

Even better than the spot-news coverage by the Review-Journal was a piece today by sports columnist Ed Graney. Graney delves further into the emotional outpouring and strong faith of Cunningham's grieving congregation.

Here's the top of the piece, which ran under the headline "It is the rest of us who need prayer":

The prayer was about being strong in faith, about guiding them along this difficult path, about allowing the family to find peace, about helping others not to assign blame, about making their relationship with him stronger in such a sorrowful time. They asked God for support.

They came Tuesday evening, one by one, tear by countless tear, long embrace after long embrace, to the place where some sense might be made of it all. To the place their pastor has counseled and encouraged and helped them countless times.

They came searching for answers.

The Las Vegas Sun coverage of the story that I found online was a "Staff and wire reports" piece that seemed to ignore the religion angle. I did see a nice post by Sun blogger Ray Brewer headlined "Randall Cunningham's faith, devotion to children will give him strength." Check it out.

Finally, the Philadelphia Daily News takes a crack at the faith angle with a cover story today that opens like this:

FAMILY COMES first at Remnant Ministries, the Las Vegas church where former Eagles quarterback Randall Cunningham serves as pastor.

"The family unit is the most important unit in the universe," the church's Web site states. "Healthy families are the closest thing to heaven on earth."

Cunningham's universe was shattered late Tuesday afternoon when his youngest son accidentally drowned in the family's back-yard hot tub - the same tub in which Cunningham, an ordained minister, reportedly performs baptisms.

It's not a terrible piece, and it includes a few references to prayer -- which you don't always see in a major paper. But mainly, the writer relies on Web research and borrowed quotes from other sites and publications, including the Review-Journal.

Over the next few days, it'll be interesting to see if Randall Cunningham and his family talk about the death, and if they do, how the media handle the faith element. If you come across any relevant secular media links, please don't hesitate to share them.

In the meantime, here's a shout-out to Mitchell and his Review-Journal staff for a job well-done.

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