Breaking news, meet expert religion reporting: Inside the Tennessee church shooting coverage

Holly Meyer, religion writer for The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville, immediately headed to the office when she heard about Sunday's mass shooting at the Burnette Chapel Church of Christ.

The paper already had dispatched a reporter to the scene, as other staff members pieced together details of the shooting that claimed the life of church member Melanie Crow and wounded seven others.

"For me, a lot of my background is in breaking news," Meyer told me. "I always joke that religion and breaking news don’t necessarily go together. But you’d be amazed how often those breaking news skills really come in handy. They certainly do in situations such as this."

They do indeed -- as do Meyer's expert religion reporting skills -- which she has demonstrated in expert fashion this week.

Early in its reporting, The Tennessean team learned that minister Joey Spann was one of the shooting victims.

"I really wanted to find out more about the minister," Meyer said.

And she did, with the help of sports department colleagues who were familiar with the vocational minister's work as a Christian school coach. And with archive background that revealed this was not Spann's first near-death experience.

The result: an excellent first-day profile of Spann that appeared in Monday's newspaper:

For that initial deadline piece, Meyer talked to Spann's close friend Mike McPherson:

In 2011, Spann survived sudden cardiac arrest while coaching Goodpasture Christian School’s girls’ basketball team. The team was playing their rival David Lipscomb Campus School when he collapsed and an automated external defibrillator was used to revive him.  
"He survived that. God brought him back," McPherson said. "Twice he's been at death's door."

The trust that Meyer built with McPherson in her first story paid dividends — with a major scoop Monday night. With McPherson's help, The Tennessean religion writer scored the first interview with Spann.

Meyer's powerful lede:

Minister Joey Spann expected to die.
He lay bleeding, collapsed on the floor of Burnette Chapel Church of Christ, and watched the masked man who had just shot him in the chest and hand walk farther into the church.
"The shots kept going," Spann said. "I thought he was going to kill everybody."
The gunfire stopped. But Spann, who leads the small congregation in Antioch, still thought he was dying. So the minister prayed.
He didn’t pray to be saved by the church members who applied pressure to his wounds. He didn't pray to be saved as he heard them call 911. He prayed for forgiveness. 
"God, I’m sorry for things I didn’t do right," Spann said in a telephone interview Monday evening from his hospital room.

As a religion writer, Meyer said, she is "always on the lookout for the way that faith is playing a role in the story."

In this case, she said, "I think a lot of people would assume that if you were shot and thought you were dying, you would pray to be saved. But he seems to firmly believe that regardless of whether he lived or died, he was in God’s hands and would be OK."

On Tuesday, Spann spoke again — this time at a hospital news conference with a bunch of television cameras present.

But much of what Spann said, Meyer already had reported.

Think breaking news and expert religion reporting don't mix? Think again.

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