Let's ask a few journalism questions about that Pokemon Go guy in the Russian shrine

So, did you hear about the Russian blogger who paid a small legal price for playing Pokemon Go inside a highly symbolic Russian Orthodox sanctuary?

I sure did, and I'm not just talking about the coverage from BBC, The New York Times and The Washington Post. As you would imagine, Orthodox folks such as myself have been asked if we approved of this government action against an Internet-era provocateur.

Well, that is an interesting question. However, that isn't what I want to write about here. Much like the Pussy Riot case, I am interesting in a different pair of questions: What actually happened in that shrine? And could news consumers find out what happened, just by reading the news accounts?

So let's shift the focus for a second and consider a hypothetical case. Let's say that an alt-right Holocaust denier decides to enter a highly symbolic sanctuary -- perhaps Berlin's Ryke Street synagogue -- and walks around playing some kind of smartphone game in which he hunts demons, or monsters, or whatever. He then posts an anti-semitic video online. Ultimately, he ends up in trouble with law officials.

Now, there are several questions that I think would be crucial for journalists to ask in this case: (1) What sanctuary are we talking about? (2) Did this sanctuary invasion take place during a worship service? (2) Did the rabbi, or people working with him, request that the man cease and desist? In other words, was he warned that he was disturbing the peace?

It's one thing to walk around uninvited in a holy place doing nonsense. In terms of the law, it might be more offensive -- perhaps even a legal offense -- to do this during a prayer service. What if this alt-right wacko was asked to leave, to stop distracting people in the synagogue and refused? Several times?

Now, back to Russia. Let me stress, once again, that we are not debating the appropriateness of Russian law or actions in this case. We are asking if news consumers can figure out what actually happened in this event, simply by reading the news coverage.

Let's start with the BBC. Readers are told, right up front:

A Russian blogger has been given a three-and-a-half year suspended sentence after he posted a video of himself playing Pokemon Go in a church
The court in the city of Yekaterinburg found Ruslan Sokolovsky guilty of insulting religious believers and inciting hatred. During the trial, Sokolovsky, now aged 22, had pleaded not guilty. He filmed himself playing the popular game in the local Orthodox church in August 2016. He was arrested shortly afterwards.

Later, readers do learn that this is not just an ordinary church.

The video from the church built in remembrance of Tsar Nicholas II and his family was posted by Sokolovsky in August 2016, quickly attracting many viewers. It was published apparently in response to warnings that playing such games in church might have legal consequences.
In the video, Sokolovsky -- just before going inside the church -- is seen saying that the risk of being arrested is "complete nonsense".

That is pretty much that, in terms of content (unless you are interested in lots of information about people doing silly and/or stupid things while playing Pokemon Go).

Oh, and the church "built in remembrance" of the last czar is a bit more symbolic than that.

So let's look at what The Washington Post has to offer on our key questions (parallels to details in my hypothetical synagogue case). Now, this mixture of reporting and aggregation does provide some new material. Here is a key passage:

That’s what you get for posting a profanity-laced YouTube video of yourself playing an altered reality game that involves catching virtual monsters using your iPhone camera in one of Russia’s holiest places, as Sokolovsky did in August. The Church of All Saints in Yekaterinburg, 900 miles east of Moscow, is built on the site where Czar Nicholas II and his family were executed by the Bolsheviks in 1918. ...
Sokolovsky was convicted of violating a Russian law against incitement of hatred that has been used to prosecute government critics, and a four-year-old “blasphemy law” that was used to prosecute members of the punk rock collective Pussy Riot after the group staged a protest against Putin at an Orthodox cathedral in Moscow in 2012. 

Note the reference to the execution of the czar and his whole family, who are considered martyrs by many Orthodox Russians. So this isn't just a church that was built "in remembrance" of these historic figures. It's the location of their slaughter.

Now, the reference in this account to the earlier Pussy Riot media storm is interesting -- because I asked some similar journalistic questions about coverage of that event back in the day.

Note the wording that this sort-of music groups staged a protest "at an Orthodox cathedral." Actually, that crude video shoot was inside the cathedral, at the front next to the iconostasis. I still -- to this day -- have never seen definitive information, one way or the other, on whether the protestors went inside, or tried to go inside, the altar area.

Does that matter? Well, if your government passes laws against offending major religious groups -- such as Islam -- then it matters whether people tried to desecrate the high altar in Christ Our Savior Cathedral, which had recently been rebuilt after its infamous destruction by the Bolsheviks (see video below).

So, once again, what precisely did Mr. Pokemon Go do during his YouTube shoot? The Post story continues a tiny clue, sort of.

The video (warning: contains profanity) shows Sokolovsky playing the game in front of lit candles to a soundtrack that alternates between the Pokémon Go theme song, an Orthodox prayer and Orthodox music with a vulgar text. At the end of the clip, Sokolovsky notes that he failed to catch “the rarest Pokémon that you could find there -- Jesus.”
“They say it doesn’t even exist,” he says with a shrug. “So I’m not really surprised.”

Lit candles? Could be during a service, but not necessarily. The Orthodox light prayer candles in their sanctuaries all the time. Adding vulgar words to Orthodox liturgical music was nice touch, if the goal was to offend as many people as possible.

But what about our factual questions for journalists covering this event?

Was there any interaction with a priest? Are readers ever going to get to know what actually happened in this important (to people on both sides) event?

What about The New York Times? Actually, its account contains less factual information that the story in the Post. It does contain a snippet of information of the symbolic location of this particular church. But that's it.

OK, perhaps we need to do what any reporter should have done first -- which is watch the main YouTube video at the heart of this story. It's crass, but sometimes reporters need to do hard things.

Note that, at the 1 minute mark, there are people praying at the icons and that a priest, fully vested, is using incense while saying prayers -- out loud -- at the doors into the main altar. Sokolovsky even cuts a few seconds of the prayers into his audio track.

A reporting note: I do not speak Old Church Slavonic, so I do not know what the priest is saying. That would be good to know, since it might tell us which service is taking place and at what point in the rite the Pokemon Go man is doing his thing. However, it would not be difficult -- in cities such as New York and Washington, D.C. -- to place a call to someone familiar with the language and these rites. In other words: Open a telephone book (analog or digital).

So, we now know that a worship service was in progress.

We also know that a vested priest was there.

By the way, you may (after watching the video) be asking: If this is a worship service, where are all the people? Suffice it to say that, if this was one of the many prayer services that takes place in a major church during a weekday, it's highly likely that few people would have been there. Worshippers may have been standing elsewhere, near icons that are important to them. They may have been lighting candles elsewhere. But the priest is in vestments and is clearly taking part in a liturgical rite.

If reporters watched this video -- surely some of them must have done this basic task -- didn't they notice that Sokolovsky did more than just enter a church and play Pokemon Go? We still don't know if, during this worship service, he was asked to leave and refused to do so.

Does any of this justify arrest and punishment? I would say it does not. However, what do you think would be the fate -- in America -- for an alt-right bigot doing something similar during an event in a major mosque or at, oh, the Holocaust Museum? What if said person was asked to leave and refused to do so? Might that be trespassing?

In conclusion, let me add a note to readers who are poised to click "comment" and say that I am excusing the actions of Vladimir Putin, the Moscow Patriarchate, the Russian Religious Right or whatever. 

Please consider the following passage (it's long, so I apologize) from one of my earlier posts about the Pussy Riot case.

... Raise your hand if:
* You think Vladimir V. Putin is a corrupt political thug who continues to feed on Russian nationalism.
Mine is up.
* You think that, in the complex post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church, there exists troubling corruption, mixed with flashes of courage and truly radical faith. In other words, this is a complex matter (please click here for a flashback).
Mine is up.
* You support the free speech rights of the members of P***y Riot and think that, while what these protesters said and did was foul, they had every right to demonstrate in public places in Russia.
Mine is up.
* You think that the government overreacted and, while crimes were in this case committed under Russian law (ironically, laws hailed by some on the left because of their intent to prevent offenses against Islam, Judaism, etc., as well as to majority Orthodoxy), the sentence was too harsh. The Orthodox hierarchy seems to feel the same way.
Mine is up.
* You think that crimes of some kind were committed in this case and that they should be enforced if and when vandals invade and threaten religious sanctuaries, such as, just thinking out loud:
-- Aryan Nations thugs invading Holocaust-era synagogues in Germany.
-- Anti-Muslim extremists of left or right attacking mosques (say the Dome of the Rock) in order to shout profanities against the faith and the Prophet Mohammad. ... 
Mine is up.
* You think it was bad, unbalanced and inaccurate journalism for the mainstream American press, in story after story, to essentially ignore the details of what the protesters said and did and where they did it. Thus, these stories were painfully flawed and millions of readers have no idea what actually happened.
Yes, mine is way up.
Folks, we are living in a sad age in which it is, at times, easier to find out what actually happened in major news events by watching YouTube than it is by reading the world's major newspapers. 

So there. That's where I stand on all of those issues.

I am trying, as always, to ask a few basic, factual journalism questions at the heart of this story. Don't readers need to know a sentence or two worth of factual material about what happened in this event, in order to understand it? Why not probe the details. After all, #JournalismMatters.

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