"Crossroads" host Todd Wilken opened our conversation this week with a rather snarky question: Why did those rather bizarre AR-15 infused wedding rededication rites at the World Peace and Unification Sanctuary draw attention from national media? (Click here to tune that in.)
Obviously, it had something to do with the mass-shooting in Parkland, Fla.
So this story had guns. That's a very big deal right now.
What else? This is the snarky part. The Associated Press report featured a car in parking lot with a sign requesting prayer for President Donald Trump. So the story had -- sort of -- the Trump factor. There was an earlier "President Trump Thank You" dinner.
What else? Maybe a bit more snark. It also had amazing visual images -- always crucial in a world of glowing screens -- showing lots of very non-mainstream looking religious people. The crowns made out of rifle bullets were especially nice.
Thus, Wilken said, you have guns, Trump and crazy religious people. And the tsunami of Parkland follow-up stories on AR-15s provided the news hook, turning a rather strange local or regional story into a national story. Take it away NPR:
Hundreds of faithful at a Pennsylvania church on Wednesday carried AR-15-style rifles in adherence to their belief that a "rod of iron" mentioned in the Bible refers to the type of weapon that was used in last month's mass shooting in Parkland, Fla.
The armed ceremony at World Peace and Unification Sanctuary in Newfoundland, about 20 miles southeast of Scranton, featured gun-toting worshippers, some wearing crowns of bullets as they participated in communion and wedding ceremonies.
Attendants carefully placed a zip tie into the receiver magazine well of each weapon to assure that a clip could not be loaded.
Concern over Wednesday's gathering prompted a nearby elementary school to cancel classes for the day.
Now, pay close attention to that last part. This congregation has held these rites before. Were classes at that school cancelled then?
I would predict they were not. If reporters traced the origins of that school decision, and efforts to publicize it, they might find the media-savvy brain that launched this story into the news mainstream.
Now, the other big issue in this story (see my earlier post on this) was the crucial word "church" -- as opposed to some variation on the word "cult."
The NPR report finally noted, concerning the Rev. Hyung Jin "Sean" Moon and his flock:
Moon is the youngest son of the late Rev. Sun Myung Moon -- the self-proclaimed messiah who founded the Unification Church in South Korea in 1954 and eventually spawned a worldwide movement regarded by detractors as a cult. The church is perhaps best known for its mass wedding ceremonies.
As the AP notes, "The younger Moon's congregation is a breakaway faction of the Unification Church, which had distanced itself from Wednesday's event."
The word "cult" is loaded, of course. If journalists use it, they really need to note whether these anonymous "detractors" are speaking in doctrinal or sociological terms. That, of course, would require (a) knowing that this issue matters and (b) making a telephone call or even (gasp) two. Who has time for that?
I was left asking this question: How many readers/viewers/listeners hit the word "church," combined with a weird reference to an image from scripture, then combined that with the Trump material and said to themselves, "Probably another crazy bunch of evangelicals." Then they turned away.
What was the alternative? Consider these two contrasting headlines in the world of Time media.
First, in online print media, there was:
Hundreds of Worshippers Clutching AR-15 Rifles Gather Inside Church
Then, in a Time video report, the headline was:
Hundreds of Worshippers Clutching AR-15 Rifles Gather Inside Cult-Like Church In Pennsylvania
Which is accurate? Once again, that would require some reporting. Right?
This is why major newsrooms need religion specialists to work on these kinds of loaded, complex and even snarky stories.