Priest murdered by terrorists during Mass: Yes, hellish details matter in this story (updated)

So an elderly Catholic priest was killed by terrorists in France. These basic facts are at the heart of the latest horror story from the very tense continent of Europe.

As you would imagine, a story of this kind will almost certainly include a number of poignant details that, for those with the eyes to see, are loaded with symbolism.

How many of the details should journalists include? To what degree are the religious details relevant and where should they be placed in a mainstream news report?

As you would expect, the religious details were highly relevant to a "conservative" publication on the other side of the Atlantic. Meanwhile, they were not as important to editors at America's most elite mainstream publication. Perhaps religion is viewed as "tabloid" material?

For example, let's look at the top six short, punchy paragraphs at the top of the story in The Daily Mail:

An 86-year-old priest has been 'beheaded' by two ISIS knifemen who cut his throat after bursting into a French church and taking nuns and worshippers hostage before being shot dead by police.
Five people including the priest, two nuns and two parishioners were held by assailants who raided the church in Saint-Etienne-du-Rouvray near Rouen in Normandy at 9 am.
The clergyman, named as Jacques Hamel, is believed to have been beheaded during the attack while another hostage is fighting for life in hospital.
The two attackers were 'neutralised' by marksmen as they emerged from the building, which is now being searched for explosives. French president Francois Hollande said the men 'claimed to be from' ISIS. 
There were reports the attackers shouted 'Daesh' -- an alternative name for ISIS often used by the French government -- as they ran into the church while at least one of the men was dressed in Islamic clothing.
It comes as it emerged that the building was one of a number of Catholic churches on a terrorist 'hit list' found on a suspected ISIS extremist last April.

What details hit you hard as you read that?

The elderly priest was said to have been beheaded, or the attackers attempted to behead him, a very symbolic way to die in this day and age.

The hostages included nuns. The attackers were reported to have been shouting their allegiance to ISIS. At least one attacker was said to be in "Islamic clothing," whatever that means. This church was on an ISIS hit list.

Oh, and the attack took place at 9 a.m., which turns out to be the scheduled time for morning Mass.

Here is the corresponding material from the report in The New York Times. (My quotes are from the original report this morning, it has been updated).

PARIS -- Two men stormed a parish church in northern France on Tuesday morning and took several hostages, killing a priest and critically injuring another person, before the attackers were shot by the police, officials said.
President François Hollande said that the Islamic State was behind the attack, the latest in a series of assaults that have left Europe stunned, fearful and angry.
Mr. Hollande spoke after traveling with Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve to the town where the attack occurred,St.-Étienne-du-Rouvray, a suburb of Rouen that has about 29,000 inhabitants and is about 65 miles northwest of Paris.
Prime Minister Manuel Valls expressed horror at what he called “a barbaric attack on a church,” adding: “The whole of France and all Catholics are wounded. We will stand together.”
The Interior Ministry confirmed the death of one man and said another person had been critically injured.
Archbishop Dominique Lebrun of Rouen, in a statement from Krakow, Poland, where he and other Roman Catholic leaders were gathered for the World Youth Day celebration, identified the victim as the Rev. Jacques Hamel, the auxiliary priest at the church.

Spot any differences? It's interesting to note the similarities with the BBC video report included at the top of this post.

There are no nuns involved. The priest was killed, and that's that. The ISIS connection is established by a political leader, as opposed to reported details from eyewitnesses.

Late in the story, the Times team did mention that it "was not immediately clear whether the Mass had ended." The story added, with quotes from the parish's main priest, that "Mass begins at 9 a.m. and lasts for about half an hour. Because of the summer holidays, attendance would have been low -- fewer than 10 people."

Clearly, there are sourcing issues here. For example, Reuters quoted a police source as saying "it appeared that the priest had had his throat slit." That story also said -- dramatically -- that the "attack took place during morning mass."

As it turns out, The Washington Post managed to get some of these key details at the top of its report. This wasn't strictly a British press vs. elite U.S. press situation.

PARIS -- Two attackers backing the Islamic State stormed a village church during Mass in northern France on Tuesday, taking hostages and slitting the throat of a 86-year-old priest before police commandos shot and killed the assailants, authorities said.

This report was missing a key detail -- the presence of nuns among the hostages. Imagine the horror if that detail turns out to be linked to this fact reported by authorities:

Another person held by the hostage-takers at the church suffered life-threatening injuries, said Interior Ministry spokesman Pierre-Henry Brandet.

So what is going on here, especially with the sharp contrast between the tone at the great Gray Lady and The Daily Mail? I can think of several possible explanations.

It could be as simple as this: Times editors may be convinced that their "urban," "liberal" or even "secular" readers don't want to read the religious details, especially since they would spotlight the role of religious convictions and identity in attacks of these kind. Editors at The Daily Mail may believe exactly the opposite, writing for very different readers.

Perhaps this is an issue of journalistic standards, with the Mail team being more comfortable quoting material from other sources, while the Times team wanted to stress its own reporting, mainly via political sources.

But what do you think Catholic readers are thinking, after reading these reports? What questions remain?

I can think of a few symbolic details. Was the priest literally killed in his liturgical vestments, the vestments in which he will be buried? Did he die trying to protect the Sacraments on the altar? Does his death make him, in the church's eyes, a martyr?

What damage was done to the church itself? Were there acts of iconoclasm? Did the attackers desecrate the altar with the priest's blood -- an act that has taken place many times through the centuries -- which would require (at least in Eastern church traditions) the church to be reconsecrated.

Would these kinds of details matter to many readers?

Just asking.

UPDATE: Oh my, check out this classic passive-voice headline @NYTimes

By the way, in this updated Times report editors moved a few religious details higher up, including the fact that nuns were among the hostages. It also mentions, quoting a priest at a nearby parish, that the attackers "jumped on him while he was celebrating Mass."

IMAGE: Screenshot of the Rev. Jacques Hamel taken from the BBC video report.

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