Some 12 people were killed by a gunman at Washington, D.C.'s Navy Yards on Monday morning. This being near the U.S. Capitol, reporters hit the scene early. Details came out slowly and sometimes incorrectly, even when sourced to D.C. police spokesmen. It was a difficult slog for reporters trying to figure out just what happened. The Washington Post had a team of reporters on the scene, including Godbeat veteran Michelle Boorstein who lives nearby. She and the others did excellent work, getting stories from survivors that helped give a picture of the chaos and destruction that hit the military installation. At some point the shooter was identified as Aaron Alexis. Somewhat surprisingly, two journalists at the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram actually knew him as their waiter at a favorite Thai restaurant. You can watch a video of them talking about the alleged shooter at the bottom of this story or embedded above.
Soon acquaintances were talking about what they knew about him, including that he was a regular worshiper at a Buddhist temple. Boorstein tweeted:
Suspect had been at least for a time a practicing Buddhist #navyyardshooting
She received some push back for tweeting this, which seems unfair. One person wrote, "Forgive me for thinking it's of secondary importance at this early stage. It conflates his spirituality with his crime. I suspect deliberately." Boorstein noted she was just sharing information, which is her job as a journalist.
It's not that reporters always perfectly handle religious affiliation as it relates to news stories. But I think people would be hard-pressed to argue that religious affiliation is not a good piece of information to share, if well substantiated.
If the Post had been rushing to tie religious affiliation to motivation or make it the predominant fact of the case, that would be inappropriate -- or would be inappropriate outside of any substantiating facts. But simply mentioning that someone had, at least for a time, been a practicing Buddhist? That's simply sharing information that reporters have about someone of much interest. Again, this is all with the caveat that these pieces of information should be well sourced.
As for the Washington Post story on the alleged shooter, the religious affiliation was mentioned there, too. Here's the relevant portion:
By Monday afternoon, a portrait of Alexis had begun to emerge. He lived until recently in Fort Worth, where he was seen frequently at a Buddhist temple, meditating and helping out. He was pursuing a bachelor’s of science degree in aeronautics as an online student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University.
But Alexis also had been accused in at least two prior shooting incidents, one in Fort Worth and one in Seattle, according to police reports.
The story then spends many paragraphs discussing those prior shooting incidents. But it returns to the affiliation with the Buddhist temple. An assistant to the monks at the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center is interviewed:
In Fort Worth, Alexis had become a familiar, if unusual, figure at a Buddhist temple.
At the Wat Busayadhammavanaram Meditation Center there, Alexis came to meditate twice a week. But he still seemed so tightly wound that at least one worker there sought to avoid him.
“He would help people if they came in carrying heavy things,” said J. Sirun, an assistant to the monks at the center. “From the outside, he was a quiet person. But on the inside, I think he was very aggressive. He did not like to be close with anybody, like a soldier who has been at war.”
So long as religious affiliation isn't treated as the end of the discussion -- as opposed to an important angle to a complex story -- you see that it can help readers and news consumers desperate to understand the latest tragic shooting that has left Americans dead and their families and friends in mourning.