Why did People magazine out-report the Associated Press on a cult-related killing?

If ever there was a crime for which the word "bizarre" was coined, the recent tragic events in Coolbaugh Township, Pennsylvania would likely be "Exhibit A."

Local police allege Barbara Rogers shot and killed her boyfriend, Steven Mineo, whose body was found on July 15 after Rogers called police to report the shooting. According to police, Rogers claims she shot Mineo at his request, over issues involving a religious cult to which both adults apparently belonged.

The Associated Press picks up the barest essence of the story from there, presenting us with a key journalistic issue:

Rogers told officers Mineo, 32, was having “online issues” with a cult and asked her to kill him, said Lt. Steven Williams, of the Pocono Mountain Regional Police. She said her boyfriend believed the cult’s leader to be a “reptilian” pretending to be a human, according to an affidavit.
Rogers, 42, told police the group centers on “aliens and raptures.” Online postings associated with the cult detail a theory that a group of alien reptiles is subverting the human race through mind control.

I should note that I found the AP story at the website of the Wilkes-Barre, Penna., Times Leader, a newspaper whose offices are a mere 45 minutes away, by car, from the crime scene. (I'll have more to say about that in a moment.) 

American author Mark Twain once declared, “There are only two forces that can carry light to all the corners of the globe… the sun in the heavens and the Associated Press down here.” In reporting this cult case, I believe the AP got a head start on that total eclipse of the sun due in mid-August.

Ironically, it is People magazine, followed hard on its heels by London's Daily Mail, that provides the answers to the many questions the AP report raised. More famous for pronouncing who is "The Sexiest Man Alive," People does dive into serious news and in this case, came back with a cornucopia of detail the news agency was either unwilling or unable to provide.

Read this longish excerpt from the People article and you'll see what I mean:

Rogers told police the couple had been feuding with Sherry Shriner, the founder of a website that posts about conspiracy theories, doomsday preparations, soul scalping and a “new-age alien agenda.”
“The victim believed that contrary to her appearance, Shriner was actually ‘reptilian,'” the complaint states.
Shriner, who agreed to be interviewed by PEOPLE over email, claims she became friends with Mineo on Facebook in 2010. ...
Shriner says they recently had a falling out over his relationship with Rogers. ...
Shriner claims she removed Rogers from their chat group and she “confronted Steve about her and told her who/what she was and he threw a complete temper tantrum… He was convinced Barbara was an answer to his prayers and the perfect Christian girl.”
Kevin Wade, Mineo’s friend, told WNEP that the couple left Shriner “because they were too far out, instead of being religious, it was just a cult thing, they got rid of that,” he said.
Shriner scoffs at the idea that she runs a cult. “I’m moral, ethical, grandma, no dirt… so they try to run with the cult label to try and slam and discredit me… Amusing that my chat room of 10 people who get together to chat, pray, and talk about world events is a ‘cult.’ I don’t think that would hold up in court as a defense.”

As you can see from the video Shriner posted about the killing (above), the reputed "cult leader" is a bit out there. Looking at Shriner's website, the word outré immediately came to my mind, as did the name of Marshall Herff Applewhite, Jr., known as "Bo" and "Do" in the suicidal Heaven's Gate cult whose deaths occurred a little more than 20 years before Mineo was killed.

People and its reporter are to be applauded for their enterprise in digging up the details about the group alleged to be at the center of this tragedy. Whatever the Shriner group is or isn't, at least those reading the People article have something to consider when pondering the case.

I'm stunned at the incuriosity of the AP report, however. Here's a news organization that should be able to find the same information -- and more -- that People did. Instead, the agency lets it go at "reptilian cult." That's incomplete reporting, and it does a disservice to readers. I don't know which AP bureau or desk handled the story, but where was the editor who should have asked for more details? I know times are tight, but, really, gang?

My greater disappointment lies with the Times Leader, a newspaper with which I am well acquainted. "The Leader," as locals and staffers called it, was one of my first daily newspaper jobs, and where a love for ink, paper and late nights in the composing room was instilled in me.

Also instilled in me was a need to be thorough when calling around to the various police departments -- "cop shops" in newsroom lingo -- to get updates on what was happening. In Wilkes-Barre itself, early evening crime was generally limited to reports of a stolen planter in the shape of a frog (I put that in the paper) or other relatively innocuous things.

But if a big crime broke, we had the staff to cover it, often moving the story from the night staff to the dayside reporting team, where a police reporter or other local expert would be able to dive in. That was, sad to say, many years ago, and I'm guessing the paper's resources are stretched.

Even in strained times, the local paper should've sent someone up to Coolbaugh Township to dig into this. Although the location is 43 miles away, it's also practically in the paper's backyard. I know that Rich Connor, editor-in-chief when I was there, and the late Bill Griffith, the night time editor also known as "Griff," would've had this story pursued by their staff. It's just plain sad that their successors didn't do likewise.

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