#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches is trending on Twitter.
The bright orange flames and charred remains in images shared by major news organizations tell part of the story:
As social media fans the flames, however, journalists intent on reporting the full story must focus on the basics.
Here are three important considerations:
1. Facts are crucial.
Even as speculation — on Twitter and elsewhere — fixates on the possibility of arson or hate crimes, news organizations must be careful to report what they know. No more. No less:
GREELEYVILLE, S.C. (AP) — A fire that destroyed a black church that 20 years ago was a target of the Ku Klux Klan was not the work of an arsonist, a federal law enforcement official said Wednesday.
Local and regional officials said at a news conference that they haven't ruled out any potential causes in the fire. But the federal official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the case publicly, told The Associated Press that preliminary indications show the fire at the Mount Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church in Greeleyville was not intentionally set and was not arson.
The fire is still under investigation, all the officials said.
Greeleyville is a town of about 400 people around 50 miles north of Charleston, where a pastor and eight members of a historic black church were fatally shot June 17 in what authorities are investigating as a hate crime.
The fire — reported about 9 p.m. Tuesday as storms moved through the area — occurred as federal authorities also investigate a series of fires at black churches in several Southern states. So far, there is no indication the fires are related.
2. Context is crucial.
A half-dozen church fires in such a short period sounds like a lot. But is it really? Journalists must be sure to put the fires — and the number of them — in context.
Kudos to Matt Pearce, a Los Angeles Times national reporter, for doing just that:
A chunk of the relevant background that Pearce included in his Times story today:
Church fires are relatively common in the U.S. According to the most recent data available from the National Fire Protection Assn., officials responded to 1,660 fires at religious and funeral properties in 2011, down from 3,500 in 1980.
About 16% of those church and funeral-property fires were intentionally set, which equals about five arsons a week, according to the association.
But the specter of black churches burning -- especially after the June 17 massacre that left nine parishioners dead at a black church in Charleston, S.C. -- rattled many black activists and social media users given the nation's long history of racial violence against black churches.
A spike of arsons against black churches in the South during the mid-1990s led to the creation in 1996 of the National Church Arson Task Force, which investigated at least 827 arsons, bombings or attempted bombings at religious buildings that occurred between 1995 and 1999. The task force includes the FBI, the ATF, U.S. attorneys, local prosecutors and other federal and state law enforcement.
Of that 827, at least 269 involved black churches, with 185 of those churches located in the South, according to a 2000 report.
"The bulk of the attacks appear to be 'random' acts of vandalism, the work of 'teenagers' and 'copycats' rather than hardened conspirators," Jim Campbell, an assistant professor of history at Northwestern University, wrote in a 1996 opinion piece for The Times titled "America's Long History of Black Churches Burning" that was shared widely over social media on Monday.
3. Real human voices are crucial.
On a story such as this, it's easy to concentrate on statements from national advocacy organizations and law enforcement authorities:
Without a doubt, such statements are vital. But real human voices close to the scene bolster news reports.
Since the June 17 murders at Charleston's Emmanuel AME church of nine worshippers by a white 21-year-old saying he wanted to start a race war, at least six black churches have burned in the southeastern United States. That includes Tuesday night's burning of Mt. Zion.
Regardless of the cause of Tuesday's blaze, "it was another punch to the gut" to the community, said former state Rep. Bakari Sellers on CNN Wednesday.
"This community has been through so much," he said, alluding to April 4 shooting death of Walter Scott by a white police officer -- who has been charged with murder -- and the Charleston church massacre this month.
"We are weary," he said. "We are tired."
Facts. Context. Human voices.
What other considerations would you point out, kind GetReligion readers? Please share your thoughts below or tweet us at @GetReligion.