Texas church massacre: What to do with atheism arguments on that Facebook page?

In the social-media age, journalists have learned -- the hard way -- to be very careful about materials that they find online at Facebook and similar sites.

This leads us directly to Devin Patrick Kelley and the latest question for an answer to the "Why?" component in the old journalism formula, "Who," "What," "When," "Where," "Why" and "How."

Let's ignore, for a moment, the fringe websites that have what appear to be doctored online materials claiming that Kelley is an Antifa supporter who hates ordinary America.

The crucial question for reporters, today, is this: When will they discuss the contents of what appears to have been the gunman's Facebook page? The key word in this controversy is this: "Atheist." If you are reading British papers, you have been told that Kelley was a militant atheist who hated Christians. In American news outlets? Hold that thought.

As of this morning, BuzzFeed is openly stating that there was a fake Facebook page for Kelley. That annotated-list story notes:

A fake Facebook page was being spread on social media hours after the news broke, but it's not real. It was a page, not a profile, and it kept posting after the news of the shooting broke.

I'm not exactly sure what that means. Did someone build a fake page in a matter of minutes with the same photo that police are using as real? Did someone fake the friends of Kelley, connections made before the shooting and those people immediately started leaving new comments about their connections to Kelley?

At the same time, The Los Angeles Times has published coverage that seems to accept that the Facebook page is real -- but doesn't want to discuss the contents. The story states:

A Facebook profile under the gunman's name featured a photo of an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle. In recent months, Kelley was adding strangers as friends on Facebook from "within 20 minutes" of the Sutherland Springs area and starting Facebook fights with them, according to area resident Johnathan Castillo.
Castillo accepted Kelley's friend request a couple of months ago, thinking that maybe he or his friends had met Kelley but hadn't remembered him. But Kelley soon proved to be troublesome.
“A lot of people were deleting him” for “starting drama” on Facebook, including sending insulting Facebook messages, Castillo said.

The Los Angeles Times also noted the existence of a "typo-riddled LinkedIn profile" containing some of Kelley's Air Force information, as well as this:

The profile said Kelley taught “children ages 4-6 at vocational [vacation] bible schools helping their minds grow and prosper” at the Kingsville First Baptist Church.

The Vacation Bible School reference is starting to appear in news coverage (and I've heard from GetReligion readers about that). Meanwhile, The Daily Mail headline screams this:

'Creepy, crazy and weird': Former classmates say Texas gunman was an 'outcast' who 'preached his atheism' online before killing 26 in the state’s worst ever mass shooting

The main story then opens like this:

The Texas church shooter who shot dead 26 people and injured 24 others was an 'outcast' who 'preached his atheism' online.
Former classmates say Devin Patrick Kelley, 26, who stormed First Baptist Church of Sutherland Springs in Texas and opened fire on Sunday, was 'creepy', 'crazy' and 'weird'.
Patrick Boyce, who attended New Braunfels High School with the killer, told DailyMail.com: 'He had a kid or two, fairly normal, but kinda quiet and lately seemed depressed.
'He was the first atheist I met. He went Air Force after high school, got discharged but I don't know why. I was just shocked [to hear the news]. Still haven’t quite processed how he could have done that.'
Nina Rose Nava, who went to school with the gunman, wrote on Facebook: 'In (sic) in complete shock! I legit just deleted him off my fb cause I couldn't stand his post. He was always talking about how people who believe in God we're stupid and trying to preach his atheism' ...
Michael Goff added: 'He was weird but never that damn weird, always posting his atheist sh** like Nina wrote, but damn he always posted pics of him and his baby -- crazy.'


The coverage at The Sun is more of the same.

Meanwhile, the late-morning version of the story at The New York Times opens like this. Make sure you read to the reference to the "motive" debate:

SUTHERLAND SPRINGS, Tex. -- A gunman clad in all black, with a ballistic vest strapped to his chest and a military-style rifle in his hands, opened fire on parishioners at a Sunday service at a small Baptist church in rural Texas, killing at least 26 people and turning this tiny town east of San Antonio into the scene of the country’s newest mass horror.
The gunman was identified by the Texas Department of Public Safety as Devin Patrick Kelley, 26. Mr. Kelley, who lived in New Braunfels, Tex., died shortly after the attack.
He had served in the Air Force at a base in New Mexico but was court-martialed in 2012 on charges of assaulting his wife and child. He was sentenced to 12 months’ confinement and received a “bad conduct” discharge in 2014, according to Ann Stefanek, the chief of Air Force media operations.
The motive for the attack was unclear on Sunday, but the grisly nature of it could not have been clearer: Families gathered in pews, clutching Bibles and praying to the Lord, were murdered in cold blood on the spot.

So let's sum things up at this point. BuzzFeed says the Facebook page is fake.

The Los Angeles Times seems to accept that the Facebook page existed well before the attacks. That would put the contents in play, including the arguments about atheism and Christianity. That might be connected to motive.

The Washington Post picked up that Los Angeles Times reference:

A Facebook page bearing Kelley’s name showed a photo of a Ruger assault-style rifle. The page was taken down at some point on Sunday. The Los Angeles Times reported that in recent months Kelley had started adding strangers from the Sutherland Springs area as Facebook friends and picking fights with them.
Johnathan Castillo told the Times that he accepted Kelley’s friend request a couple months ago, but deleted it soon after. Castillo said of Kelley: “It’s like he went looking for it, you know what I mean?”

So are the contents of the Facebook page fair game for journalists, or not? What was the subject that Kelley was "picking fights" about?

However, there is also evidence that Kelley -- who had abused a wife and child in his past -- had family issues linked to a crucial zip code. The Associated Press is now reporting:

A sheriff says the former in-laws of a man suspected of killing 26 people at a Texas church attended services there “from time to time.”
Wilson County Sheriff Joe D. Tackitt Jr. told CNN Monday morning that the former in-laws weren’t in attendance Sunday when the shooting occurred. He says it wasn’t clear why the gunman picked that day for the shooting.

If Kelley in any way blamed his in-laws for the state of his broken marriage, that would be a pretty strong motive for violence. If he was an ex-Southern Baptist who had evolved into an outspoken, argumentative atheist, that would be interesting information as well.

So is the Facebook page real or fake? is there a way for BuzzFeed and The Los Angeles Times to both be right? 

Meanwhile, AP (picked up by Religion News Service) has also noted:

Authorities didn’t identify the attacker during a news conference Sunday night, but two other officials -- one a U.S. official and one in law enforcement -- identified him as Devin Kelley. They spoke to The Associated Press on the condition of anonymity because they weren’t authorized to discuss the investigation.
The U.S. official said Kelley lived in a San Antonio suburb and didn’t appear to be linked to organized terrorist groups. Investigators were looking at social media posts Kelley made in the days before Sunday’s attack, including one that appeared to show an AR-15 semiautomatic weapon.

Once again, the police seem to accept that key material in social-media were created before the attack and, thus, contain valid material about Kelley.

If that is the case, at what point will American newsrooms put the commentary about atheists and hatred of Christians into play in mainstream coverage? If we were dealing with the Facebook page of an anti-abortion activist who had just attacked a clinic, would journalists be sitting on those social-media materials? Ditto for a radicalized Muslim who attacked a synagogue? Just asking.

Meanwhile, there has been some amazing coverage of the church that is at the heart of this hellish tragedy, a church that seemed to be at the center of life in this tiny Texas town. The Southern Baptist Convention website contains some interesting material about this congregation, including the fact that it offered Spanish-language services on Sunday afternoons.

I would also point readers toward a Washington Post feature with poignant details about some of the families involved -- including a family that has almost been wiped out. Some GetReligion readers will note that editors struggled to acknowledge the death of an "unborn child" in the massacre.

Houses of worship are among the few places left where families regularly gather together, sometimes extended and sometimes across many generations. The First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., is no different. And within those walls on Sunday morning, gathered as always, were three generations of the Holcombe family.
Bryan Holcombe was walking up to the pulpit, preparing to lead the congregation in worship, when a gunman identified by officials as Devin Kelley, began to spray bullets at the worshipers.
Holcombe, an associate pastor for the church, was killed in the gunfire, his parents, Joe and Claryce Holcombe, said in an interview with The Washington Post.
Bryan Holcombe’s wife of about four decades, Karla Holcombe, was also in church Sunday. She died too, said Joe Holcombe. Bryan and Karla had a son, Marc Daniel Holcombe, 36. He too was killed, Joe Holcombe said.
Marc Daniel had an infant daughter, named Noah Holcombe, who, according to Joe, was a year old. She is dead, too.
Another son of Bryan and Karla, John Holcombe, is alive, said Joe.
But his wife Crystal Holcombe is dead.
Crystal Holcombe was pregnant. She and the unborn child were both killed. Crystal had five children. Three of them, Emily, Megan and Greg, died. She had been at church with her husband, John, who thankfully survived along with two of her children.
That’s eight members of the extended Holcombe family dead, in addition to the unborn child.

I am sure that I missed crucial material linked to this rapidly developing story (waking up on my first day back in New York City to teach at The King's College). Please leave URLs in the comments pages to help me out, pointing to good coverage and bad coverage.

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