Tale of two French stories: Beltrame's Catholicism, Knoll's Judaism, and why press covered them differently

The news business involves lots of subjective judgements. For starters, what constitutes a legitimate story and what are its most important aspects? How do journalists know the heart of a complex story?

Here at GetReligion, we pay particular attention to the journalistic judgements associated with questions of religion -- including, when are they key to a story and when are they peripheral?

Two recent events in France -- a nation that prides itself on holding to secular public standards -- underscore the trickiness involved in answering questions concerning religion. In short, why did French and international media generally agree that religion was a peripheral issue in one story while putting religious identity at the center of the second?

Some background is due.

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The first story was about a French policeman who volunteered to switch places with a woman being held by an ISIS-connected terrorist in southwest France -- he put himself in danger while allowing the woman hostage to go free. Lt. Col. Arnaud Beltrame -- who died in the encounter — was an adult convert to Roman Catholicism who was soon to remarry his wife Marielle in a Catholic ceremony, two years after they wed in a civil ceremony.

GetReligion editor Terry Mattingly twice posted on the tragedy last week. His main point: News media gave Baltrame’s faith short shrift. He argued that the French and elite international media -- while appropriately emphasizing Baltrame’s selfless heroism -- had ignored the voices of friends, priests and others who thought his faith influenced his actions. Click here and then here to read Terry's posts.

The second story -- here’s a Reuters version to help you catch-up -- concerned the murder in Paris of an elderly Holocaust survivor. Authorities have painted it as a robbery attempt that turned into a case of murder with clear anti-Semitic overtones. The alleged killer was a Muslim man who the victim had long known (his alleged accomplice was a homeless man; his religious affiliation, if any, has not been reported, as far as I could ascertain).

This story -- Mireille Knoll, the victim, 85, was found with 11 stab wounds and her body charred by a fire in her apartment presumably set to destroy evidence -- has been treated as a religious hate crime from its inception. (Yes, both women mentioned here have the same first name, spelled differently.)

To reiterate: Why was Beltrame described, in most news reports, as a French national hero, with his religious beliefs given little or no attention? And why was the murder of the elderly Jewish Holocaust victim played entirely as an example of inter-religious strife and rising anti-Semitism?

The answer seems rooted in French political and, hence, journalistic culture.

I do not discount that Beltrame’s Catholic faith may have contributed in a substantial way to his fateful decision. Moreover, given his upcoming religious wedding and his death coming just before Western Christendom’s Holy Week, I would have mentioned, in passing at the very least, his Catholic faith.

I hope this doesn’t sound overly crass, but his faith-connection, speaking purely from a utilitarian journalistic perspective, could have further humanized Beltrame and connected his act of honor and courage to the calendar -- both journalistic standard manipulations. 

But this story played itself out in officially secular France so it's no surprise that Beltrame’s personal faith was of little consequence in news reports. Had the French government played up his faith in its public praise for him, French media would have reported it (while probably flipping out over the departure from public protocols), and the international media would have followed suit.

But that didn't happen. No one quoted religious sources directly linked to this story.

In the murder of Mireille Knoll, however, her religious identity and the faith of her alleged killer were front and center in virtually every news report I saw.

Why? Because the French government from the onset linked the incident to the larger problems of radical Islamists’ terrorizing French society and the spreading across Europe of overt anti-Semitic acts and attitudes.

Bottom line: The French government -- the prime news source in both these stories -- set the tone for the coverage that followed.

I've read a slew of stories about Beltrame and Knoll in recent days. Rather than post a series of links of the best and worst of them that will largely be ignored anyway, I’ll confine myself to this piece from The Atlantic: "The Meaning of France's March Against Anti-Semitism."

The piece of the story that follows, I think, underscores how deeply official French secularism permeates the nation’s culture and is reflected in its news coverage. Even in the case of Knoll’s murder and France’s inability to curb the growing anti-Semitism poisoning the land, emphasizing her Jewishness proved unsettling, even for some Jewish communal voices.

The rally mentioned is a reference to a large demonstration held last week following Knoll’s murder to protest anti-Semitism in France and the government's inability to control it. (Sorry for the density of the excerpt. Blame it on The Atlantic’s magazine-style layout.)

The rally was a call to decry anti-Semitism, but it also ran up against a total aversion in France to what’s called communautarisme, which can loosely translate as American-style identity politics, in which members of ethnic or religious groups derive a strong part of their personal identity -- and political clout -- from their backgrounds and histories. The opposite of universalism. This is also why French intellectuals have been tying themselves in knots over how to deal with anti-Semitism. How do you call it what it is without asking for special treatment? The journalist and humanitarian interventionist Raphael Glucksmann wrote on Facebook that he was attending the march not because he was heeding the call of the crif, but “because millions of people, Jews and non-Jews, people who belong to one community or to none, feel the same anguish I do and feel in some way that they also lost their grandmother on March 23, 2018.” Rabbi Delphine Horvilleur, from a liberal synagogue in Paris, tweeted: “I dream of a France that knows that someone killed a grandmother, and not just ‘mine.’ A nation that rises up to confront the horror and doesn’t send its condolences to a ‘community.’ #MyFranceHadaGrandmother.”

The above, I believe, makes clear why in France Beltrame’s Catholic faith was incidental to his story, and why Knoll’s faith was at the heart of her’s -- she simply illustrated a problem in France that transcended her personal tragedy.

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