Tragedy in Charleston: Basic facts crucial in reporting on shooting deaths of nine at historic black church

The headlines bombard us this morning as we — like you — try to make sense of what just happened in Charleston, S.C.:

At the early stage of reporting on a tragedy such as this, it's always crucial that news reports focus on basic facts and avoid conjecture. 

The Wall Street Journal has this rundown of what's known so far:

Nine people were killed after a white man opened fire Wednesday night at a historic black church in Charleston, S.C. in what police described as a “hate crime,” and police are still searching for the suspect.
Charleston Police Chief Greg Mullen said Thursday morning the suspect, a white male in his early 20s, is still at large. Local police are working with state and federal authorities to capture the suspect, who is thought to have sat for up to an hour in the church with those attending a prayer meeting before opening fire, Mr. Mullen said.
“This is a situation that is unacceptable in any society, and especially in our society, in our city,” Mr. Mullen said during a news conference. “We are committed to do whatever is needed to bring this individual to justice.”
Police are receiving tips but don’t have any solid leads about who the suspect is, Mr. Mullen said. He urged the public not to approach the suspect and to be vigilant, and if they see anything suspicious to immediately contact authorities. 

"Historic black church" is, of course, the terminology being used by most of the media to describe the location of the shooting — and that description certainly seems accurate and appropriate.

Reuters provides this solidly attributed background on the church:

The Charleston church is one of the largest and oldest black congregations in the South, its website says. It has its roots in the early 19th century, and was founded in part by a freed slave who was later executed for organizing a revolt, according to the U.S. National Park Service.

The Post and Courier, Charleston's Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper, deserves kudos for its informative sidebar on the church's history:

That local story notes:

Emanuel AME Church, scene of Wednesday night’s shootings, is the oldest AME church in the South and is affectionately called “Mother Emanuel.”
Its white Gothic Revival building on Calhoun Street is the spiritual home to one of the oldest and largest black congregations south of Baltimore and is deeply rooted in the nation’s historic fights for civil rights.
Its story, so interwoven with the Holy City’s broader history, begins about 1816 when Morris Brown, a free shoemaker and devout Methodist, walked out of a predominantly white and racially segregated Methodist Church in Charleston, an AME Church website states.

From a journalistic perspective, the South Carolina tragedy has so many angles, all interwoven: Racial. Criminal. Political. And yes, the most important angle — the human one.

As always, we'll be paying attention — and providing updates — on how the media cover the religion angle. We were pleased to see that angle reflected in the New York Times' initial report:

Helicopters with searchlights circled overhead, and a group of pastors knelt and prayed across the street.
“The question is, ‘Why God?’ ” a man wearing a shirt bearing the name of the Empowerment Missionary Baptist Church said during the prayer.
Later, a group of church leaders gathered at the corner of Calhoun and King Streets, a few blocks from where the shooting occurred, and held an impromptu news conference. Tory Fields, a member of the Charleston County Ministers Conference, said he believed the attacker had targeted the victims because of their race.
“It’s obvious that it’s race,” he said. “What else could it be? You’ve got a white guy going into an African-American church. That’s choice. He chose to go into that church and harm those people. That’s choice.”

Stay tuned for more coverage on the Charleston shooting here at GetReligion as well as that other major breaking religion news story.

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