The Baltimore Sun is no longer the dead-tree-pulp newspaper that lands in my front yard each morning. Thus, logically enough, there has been a sharp decline in the number of Sun stories that show up here on GetReligion.
Also, the newspaper's website features a numbing array of intrusive auto-cue forms of advertising, so sane readers would only go there when there are no other options. However, my many Charm City-area friends still let me know, from time to time, when something interesting shows up.
In this case, the Sun recently offered an in-depth profile of Alicia White, the only female officer charged in the death of Freddie Gray, the infamous case that still hangs over life in Baltimore like smoke from burning urban neighborhoods. This was a big story for one simple reason, as stated in the headline: "Baltimore Police Officer Alicia White, charged in Freddie Gray case, becomes the first to speak out."
The surprise in this story is that it truly explores the human side of this woman, as well as the legal and political angles of the story. As is often the case among public servants in Baltimore's African-American community, that led the reporters into spiritual territory.
Right from the get-go, the story stresses that this case has had painful consequences for White as a person and as an officer.
For the past 18 months, her co-defendants either went to trial or were called to the stand to testify while she awaited her own trial. Out of public view, White spent much of the time grappling with crippling anxiety, and at one point was rushed to a hospital. The stress led her and her fiance to call off their engagement, and she spent months unemployed. Then, in July, all charges were dropped.
In addition to the interview material from White, it's clear that the Sun team did extensive background work in the community, digging into her life and work. That's where her educational background and church ties show up.
In other words, her Christian faith was and is part of her identity and, in the past, it affected her actions. Thus, it's part of the story.
Sadly, that's a simple equation that journalists often fail to understand.
Before being charged with manslaughter and other counts in Gray's death, White was likely to be described by family and friends as the Catholic school student from West Baltimore or the ardent churchgoer. And to many residents and co-workers, she was the community resource officer who stayed late at the children's center in her district or the young sergeant who, with just five years on the force, was already rising through the ranks.
That sets up a lengthy passage in the story that mixes White's family background with references to her faith and to people discussing her character. It's clear that faith and family are actually, in her life, woven together.
This may read like ordinary news copy but, in my experience, this is actually rather rare in mainstream news coverage of cases of this magnitude. This passage is long, but worth walking through:
White was raised in West Baltimore near Mondawmin Mall, where rioting began after Gray's death in April 2015. With the exception of her time at the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, she has lived in that same home with her mother.
She was raised an only child in a Baptist household and recalls family dinners and her parents attending her school events together. At age 11, she lost her father -- a Maryland Transit Administration bus driver -- to lung cancer. He had asked to be at home instead of hospice when he died, according to White's aunt, Marian Haggerty. White said she watched him die.
What is missing there?
Obviously, it's the name of the Baptist church in which she was active while growing up. Is she still part of the same congregation? (A cutline with an online photo notes that the New Bethlehem Baptist Church remains her church home.)
It's possible that this hole in the actual news story is there for a reason. My question: Has her involvement in this case made her too controversial for her own pastor and church leaders to speak on her behalf? Perhaps her church involvement has faded?
Whatever happened, the Sun team makes it clear that her faith has been a major part of her life story. Thus, this hole in the narrative is rather obvious.
She attended public elementary school before switching to parochial schools, starting with the former St. Mary of the Assumption in Govans, then Mercy High School in Northeast Baltimore.
"She was the one who always led us in prayer," former classmate Brittany Ripple recalls. "If there was a conflict, she was the one to step in and resolve it."
She also had a military-like sense of order. Ripple said White's hair was always flawless, her sneakers gleaming. She ironed creases into her blue jeans.
White attended UMES, a historically black college, with an eye toward working with computers, but after graduation she contemplated joining the military. Instead, she came across a hiring push by the Baltimore Police Department, which was looking to boost its female ranks.
Her motive for signing up is consistent with her roots and her actions in the rest of the story, other than the alleged failures linked to the Gray case.
She was attracted to the service aspect of law enforcement. ...
"I thought, 'There has to be a way to give back and serve. What better place than my own community?'" she said.
As I said earlier, the story gets into the details of the debates about White's role in the Gray tragedy, making sure that readers understand both the accusations and her side of what happened.
I simply wanted to note that, in this case, the Sun team deserves praise for including some of the basic facts of this woman's religious faith. That may seem like a rather simply thing to praise, but it still stood out from business-as-usual work in this particular newspaper.