Here is what we know at this point.
Three young Muslim students were gunned down in Chapel Hill, N.C. All three were clearly identified, in the omnipresent world of social media, as Muslims -- including two sisters pictured wearing head coverings.
Some people -- many using #MuslimLivesMatter -- are convinced that the shootings are receiving relatively little news-media attention because the victims are Muslims.
The message: This was a crime based on hatred of Muslims, so cover it that way.
Other people are convinced that the crime is receiving a relatively small amount of coverage because 46-year-old Craig Stephen Hicks, the man charged with three counts of first-degree murder, has a social-media profile indicating that he is an outspoken atheist, a cultural liberal and, thus, a progressive in religious terms.
The message: The gunman had the wrong beliefs to provoke a storm of coverage in the secular media. This was, after all, a guy with a Facebook profile image proclaiming "Atheists for Equality" and a long list of "likes" that included dozens of pro-atheism sites, scores of anti-conservative sites and numerous pro-gay-rights sites. A few random choices from the list: The Southern Poverty Law Center, Scouts for Equality, Have a Gay Day, the Freedom From Religion Foundation and Fundies Say the Darndest Things.
So what is happening in the actual coverage? The Washington Post story opens with:
A Chapel Hill man has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder in the shooting of a young couple and their sister Tuesday, police say. One of the slain was a student at North Carolina State University. Another was at the University of North Carolina and the third was planning to enroll at UNC dental school this year.
The alleged shooter, Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, turned himself in “without incident” to the Chatham County Sheriff’s Office in nearby Pittsboro after the shooting, Chatham County Sgt. Kevin Carey told the Post. Police had not specified a motive as of mid-morning.
But all three victims were Muslim and after the three victims were identified in an alert from UNC Chapel Hill as husband and wife Deah Barakat, 23, and Yusor Mohammad, 21, and Mohammad’s sister Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha, speculation arose that the killing might be related to their religion. The news sparked outrage and a viral Twitter hashtag, #MuslimLivesMatter, reflecting users belief that the crime was religiously motivated and frustration with what they saw as the media’s failure to report the incident.
After lengthy passages discussing possible motives for the shootings, the Post story -- at the very end -- simply notes:
Hicks, the alleged shooter, frequently shared links about atheism on what appears to be his Facebook page. One such post reads: “People say nothing can solve the Middle East problem, not mediation, not arms, not financial aid. I say there is something. Atheism.”
Chapel Hill Police could not be reached for comment.
Might this information would have been placed higher in the report if he was active in a prominent Christian organization or a Tea Party network?
The story current online at The New York Times opens in this manner:
Police officials in Chapel Hill, N.C., said on Wednesday that a man had been arrested in the shooting deaths of three Muslim students at a condominium complex near the University of North Carolina campus.
The Chapel Hill police said that Craig Stephen Hicks, 46, had been charged with three counts of first-degree murder. He is being held at the Durham County Jail. “Our preliminary investigation indicates that the crime was motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking,” the police said in a statement.
The story, as of mid-morning, contained several paragraphs speculating about religious motives for the crime -- yet contained zero references to materials that Hicks appears to have posted online.
CNN settled for this, mentioning atheism, but not other political and cultural angles:
In one post widely shared online, Hicks, who claimed he is an atheist, allegedly wrote: "When it comes to insults, your religion started this, not me. If your religion kept its big mouth shut, so would I."
CNN couldn't independently confirm the authenticity of the post or his Facebook page.
The editors at USA Today wondered if the motive for the crime was linked to race, but documented the tsunami of angry online materials protesting the lack of coverage, centering on it being an anti-Muslim hate crime. This tweet, which was not unusual, called the killings an "execution" of Muslim believers.
At this point, it is easy to understand that mainstream reporters are being cautious about the materials that appear to have been posted by Hicks online.
However, note that it is easier -- in this social-media age -- to verify and then print the statements by protestors alleging various religious motives in the shooting than it is to verify and print materials containing information that may or may not be linked to the shooter. It's easier to pump up the story than it is to actually report it.
Note: I am not disagreeing with the caution at this stage of the reporting. However, I do wonder if the media would have been this cautious if the man who turned himself into police had been a religious or political conservative. Or if it had been a Muslim who killed three Jews, Christians or unbelievers.
It may, in the end, be possible for a liberal atheist to kill three Muslims over a parking place with no religious or moral entanglements emerging in the facts of the case. Would that be true with a gunman who appeared to have been active in, oh, Campus Crusade for Christ?