If you follow religion news at the global level, then you know that the Internet era has led to the rise of many alternative wire services, most of which produce news stories that are mixed with material advocating the views of the sponsors.
You can take the advocacy stuff or leave it. What matters to journalists is whether the editors of this material have a reputation for getting their facts right when to comes to dates, names, institutions and sources.
You see, the issue isn't whether these "news reports" can be printed in the mainstream press. The issue is whether there is material in them that mainstream journalists can verify and use as the starting point for their own independent reporting.
The Assyrian International News Agency is one such wire service and it is especially crucial to us (I am an Eastern Orthodox layman) with a special interest in the horrors that continue to unfold for Christians in the ancient churches of the Middle East. Here is a chunk of a recent AINA report:
Twelve Christians have been brutally executed by the Islamic State, including the 12-year-old son of a Syrian ministry team leader who had planted nine churches, because they refused to renounce the name of Jesus Christ and embrace Islam. The martyrs were faithful to the very end; right before one woman was beheaded by the terror group, she appeared to be smiling slightly as she said, "Jesus!"
According to Christian Aid Mission, a humanitarian group which assists indigenous Christian workers in their native countries, the horrific murders took place on August 28 in an unnamed village outside Aleppo, Syria.
"In front of the team leader and relatives in the crowd, the Islamic extremists cut off the fingertips of the boy and severely beat him, telling his father they would stop the torture only if he, the father, returned to Islam," Christian Aid revealed, according to a report from Morning Star News. "When the team leader refused, relatives said, the ISIS militants also tortured and beat him and the two other ministry workers. The three men and the boy then met their deaths in crucifixion."
They were killed for refusing to return to Islam after embracing Christianity, as were the other eight aid workers, including two women, according to Christian Aid. The eight were taken to a separate site in the village and asked if they would return to Islam. However, after they refused to renounce Christ, the women, ages 29 and 33, were raped before the crowd summoned to watch, and then all eight were beheaded.
So here is the crucial journalism question: What is the sourcing here?
It appears that there are mission agency personnel who are reading reports claiming information from inside Islamic State territory, most of it drawn from church leaders and converts who have refused to flee in the face of persecution.
Would any mainstream media report this information as it is?
Of course not. However, if you follow the work of journalists who are trying to find information sources inside the Islamic State -- see this post about a Washington Post report on ISIS and women -- you know that they are starting with similar sources.
Humanitarian groups and researchers -- secular and religious -- still have some sources of information in country, including contacts on the ground. They are reaching them through social media and satellite communications.
So the question is whether journalists consider reports of this kind worthy of follow-up work, leading to reports in mainstream media. Got news?
It would appear not. If you run an online search for logical terms linked to this report you get the usual collection of religious news sites, plus an aggregation piece in The Daily Mail. Apparently, ISIS needs to do more than torture women and children and behead members of religious minorities in order to be considered newsworthy.
But stop and think about this for a minute: Considering the demographics of North America, wouldn't there be quite a few news consumers who are interested in what is happening to Christians and other religious minorities in the Middle East? To be perfectly tacky about it, wouldn't this be a subject that would lead to some online traffic?
Yes, I know that readers today are more interested in culture wars in Kentucky than in beheadings and crucifixions in Syria. Nevertheless, the details of this report are tragically vivid.
In the world of conservative news, Breitbart did a follow up report that plugged into one or two other sources, but seemed to contribute little in the way of fresh reporting. Plus, it's hard to take a report very seriously that adds a fact paragraph that includes at least one rather bizarre statement about Middle East history.
The barbaric radical Islamic group has executed more than 11,000 people in “Iraq and Syria since its establishment of a self-proclaimed caliphate in June 2014.” ISIS captured Mosul, Iraq’s second largest city, in that month. For over 2,000 years, Christians and Muslims lived peacefully with each other. But when ISIS invaded, the Christians were told to either leave, convert, or pay a subjugation tax. They kidnapped the majority of the females to sell on their sex slave market while they slaughtered the males in front of their families.
Say what? I am sure that the countless Christian martyrs in the region through the ages would be shocked to learn that they lived "peacefully" with their Muslim conquerors and rulers for many centuries or even most of those centuries.
Plus, what about that math? How could these groups have peacefully coexisted for 2,000 years if Muhammad was born in about 570 A.D.? Correction please?
I do not know if mainstream journalists could have verified the facts in this particular online report. I don't know if leaders of these faith groups would have trusted mainstream reporters with the names and contact information for their sources inside the Islamic State.
However, I do think it's safe to say that if this information had been published in mainstream media -- let's say in a CNN report or the international news pages of The New York Times -- readers would have reacted.
So why was this topic merely "conservative news"? Isn't this a human-rights story that would be of interest to all?
IMAGE: From ISIS social-media materials. Detail of a crucifixion.