'Are you a Christian?': Grading media coverage of faithful after Oregon mass shooting

Major media went to church Sunday in Roseburg, Ore., to report on the faithful coming together after Thursday's mass shooting at Umpqua Community College.

It's time for a "big news report card" on that coverage.

For this report card, I use three main criteria to grade the coverage, including:

• Actual religion content (does the story reflect real prayers, Scriptures, sermons, etc., or just reference generic assemblies?).

• Below-the-surface reporting (does the story rely on clichés or actually delve into the faith angle and spiritual matters?).

• Compelling overall story (beyond the religion questions, is this a solid piece of journalism?).

Read on to see my grades and brief comments:

• • •

Associated Press: B-minus

The AP's coverage is not bad. The basic facts are there. There are a few revealing quotes.

But it's pretty standard, surface-level fare:

ROSEBURG, Ore. (AP) — A pastor whose daughter survived last week's deadly rampage in a college classroom told his congregation on Sunday that "violence will not have the last word" in this southern Oregon timber town.
More than 100 people gathered to hear pastor Randy Scroggins speak at New Beginnings Church of God, including his daughter 18-year-old Lacey, who cried while sitting in the front row with her mother.
Scroggins said he's been asked whether he can forgive Christopher Sean Harper-Mercer, who killed nine when he opened fire Thursday at Umpqua Community College.
"Can I be honest? I don't know. That's the worst part of my job. I don't know" said Scroggins, his voice cracking with emotion. "I don't focus on the man. I focus on the evil that was in the man."

This background is important (see tmatt's earlier post on this question):

There have been conflicting accounts of Harper-Mercer's words inside the classroom, and what he may have meant by them. Some witness accounts have said that after killing people who said they were Christian he continued to execute others, doing so randomly.

• • •

Los Angeles Times: A

The LA Times nails it on all the above criteria, starting at the very top:

ROSEBURG, Ore. — People sniffled in the pews of New Hope Church here Sunday as Pastor David Ewert read the names of the nine people killed in last week’s shooting at Umpqua Community College. Nine candles flickered at the Communion table near the pulpit.
"These candles are lit in memory of these nine individuals -- some of them your brothers and sisters in Christ," Ewert said. "We are so proud of them."
A slide show projected pictures from Thursday's chaos onto the sanctuary's front wall--images of yellow crime tape and a sobbing woman holding a sign looking for a missing student.
"My God," a congregant mumbled as she covered her face with a bulletin.
"Embrace this pain," the pastor said, "bring it into our prayers."
This small timber town in rural southern Oregon has always been a place where crosses bearing the words “Jesus saves” dot the sides of the roads, and on Sunday grieving residents from across town headed for the pews to make sense of the unconscionable.

This story benefits from reporters who pay close attention to what they see and hear at the assemblies they cover and then paint precise word pictures based on those observations — as opposed to cranking out copy full of clichés.

This piece is worth a read. 

• • •

New York Times: B-plus

The NY Times provides some solid religion content, interspersed among other anecdotes from Roseburg:

In this rural, economically struggling corner of the state, where an illuminated cross overlooks the city, many turned to their faith to come to grips with an act that confounded explanation.
Across Roseburg, signs outside taco stands and car dealerships, drive-throughs and coffee stands now say: Pray for the victims. Pray for Roseburg. Please pray for all at U.C.C., the local shorthand for Umpqua Community College.
And on Sunday, as families of the dead prepared for the first funerals and memorial services, people gathered at churches around town and joined in a communion of grief.
“We kept on hearing shooting after shooting,” Ms. Standley told the congregants at Liberty Christian, a sea-blue church situated in an old bus repair garage. “I can’t sleep at night. I can just hear it over and over.”

Digging just a little bit deeper below the surface would have earned the Times a top grade.

• • •

Oregonian: D

This story is noteworthy for how totally it ignores the religion angle after a lede that mentions a victim "sitting in church Sunday."

See if this headline screams potential follow-up questions for a Christian pastor:

Oregon shooting: Father of survivor says victim's blood 'saved my daughter's life'

Alas, the story never even references the quote in the headline, although ABC News has it here:

"The blood of that boy that covered my daughter saved her life," Scroggins said.

• • •

Reuters: C

Based on the lede, the potential for this story getting religion seems relatively high:

Grieving residents of an Oregon town reeling from a burst of gun violence that left 10 people dead sought solace in church services on Sunday, still bewildered by the massacre and disturbing details coming to light.
At Garden Valley Church, about 250 congregants stood at their seats as vocalists sang the Christian ballad "We Shall Not Be Shaken," then watched a slide show about the victims after the minister asked children in the sanctuary to be excused.
"For Roseburg, this was 9/11," Pastor Craig Schlesinger said from the pulpit, referring to the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
Worshipers stood with hands raised, some wiping tears from their faces and embracing each other.

But from there, the wire service reverts to an inverted pyramid rundown of the facts known so far in the mass shooting. Faith, it turns out, makes just a cameo appearance in the story.

There is this note of interest from an unnamed student:

As for the gunman's questioning of his victims' religious faith, she added: "I honestly don't think he was targeting anybody. He just wanted to do it for fun, because he still shot every single one that he asked."

• • •

Wall Street Journal: B-minus

Like AP, the Journal provides the facts:

ROSEBURG, Ore. — The words of the gunman who killed nine at a community college Thursday echoed in Garden Valley Church here on Sunday morning.
“Are you a Christian? Those four simple words are impacting me like never before,” Pastor Craig Schlesinger said to the congregation. “That was the question asked by the gunman a few days ago in our community college in Roseburg just prior to pulling the trigger.”

But after that strong intro, the story suffers from a lack of real depth or spiritual insight.

• • •

Washington Post: C-minus

The Post mentions overflowing church pews up high.

Then the newspaper pretty much forgets the faith angle until a cursory rundown at the very end:

By Sunday morning, pastors at pulpits across town were preaching messages of restoration. At a small church in south Roseburg, members of the congregation were sitting outside the sanctuary talking about how to cope. Pastor Will Irwin at Family Church said he preached a message of forgiveness.
“Some are angry at the shooter, some are angry at politicians, some are angry at officials,” Irwin said. “This gave people a chance to process. They were looking for that.”
At another church across town, evangelist Billy Graham’s crisis counselors camped out. Inside, the pastor spoke about a community that would be forever changed.
“Roseburg has been plunged into a unique set of cities and communities [where] mass tragedy, mayhem and murder have taken place,” Pastor Ron Laeger said at Wellspring Bible Fellowship, before paying tribute to the victims.
“There’s almost a sense of defiance here: We’re not letting this define us,” Cripe said. “When you get a wound and it forms a scar, it’s so much stronger than it was before.”

By all means, click the links, read the stories and feel free to challenge my grades.

If so moved, go ahead and file an appeal with GetReligion's academic dean (tmatt).

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