CNN offers readers an atheist veteran, smiling down from heaven after his suffering ends

If anything has changed, over the 10 years-plus your GetReligionistas have been doing what we do, then it has been the number of questions we hear from readers about that blurring line between basic news writing and commentary.

At first we tried to ignore this, saying that we just write about hard news -- period. Eventually, this rising tide of journalistic confusion became impossible to ignore, in part because readers kept asking us about it.

So what we have here is a perfect example, a CNN feature under the headline, "Soldier broken by war silenced by death." A longtime GetReligion reader who closely follows atheist issues sent it in, basically asking, "What the heck?" or words to that effect. I agree that this is a strange one.

For starters, this article was located in the U.S. news section and it is not flagged as an analysis piece. Yet, right in the lede, the writer -- Moni Basu -- breaks into first-person voice and frames the story in terms of direct contacts with the subject, paralyzed Iraq War veteran Tomas Young. First person? That would normally mean that this is a column, right?

He spoke with me by phone as a pump at his side helped him inject painkillers. His speech was so distorted that I had difficulty understanding him. He sent me photos showing how long and thick his hair and beard had grown. He said he seldom left his bed and that he popped a dizzying assortment of more than 30 different pills every day.

Young's ordeal began in 2004 when two rounds from a sniper's AK-47 severed his spinal cord.

Tired of suffering, Young penned a scathing letter in 2013 to former President George W. Bush and former Vice President Dick Cheney. He laid out the painful circumstances of his life and blamed the former administration for the many casualties of that war. He said he would refuse his feeding tube and allow himself to die.

This is a long and detailed story and, yes, I know that it is possible to write valid, hard-news journalism in first-person voice. 

Then. Again. What is this?

Put yourself in the position of an atheist reader who reaches the end of this piece -- once again, which focuses on a valid news topic and has been placed in the U.S. news section of a major news website. At the end, you read the following:

In a video posted on YouTube Tuesday, Young's sister-in-law, Amanda Young, captured his 34 years of life -- from a baby who put a gleam in his mother's eye to a companion for his brother Nathan; from a young man who felt compelled to serve his nation after the terror attacks of 9/11 to a wounded veteran who became a poster child for those who opposed the U.S. role in Iraq.
Young returned home from war a broken man. He is now free from his pain.
In an online memorial, people thanked him for his service.
Young was a self-avowed atheist, but somehow I could feel him smiling down at his friends, glad that they were remembering him as a nice guy.

In correspondence, I told the GetReligion reader that this was a first-person voice comment by the author. But what are we supposed to make of a journalist making an "I could feel" claim about the afterlife of an atheist? In the news section?

Online editors need to think through this. Surely there must be a way to clearly label news as news and commentary as commentary. You think?

Illustration from Truthdig

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