Plug-in: Double standard? Treatment of Boulder suspect's faith raises tough question

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Another week.

Another mass shooting.

Another 21-year-old suspect.

Last week’s news coverage of Robert Aaron Long, charged in the deaths of eight people — including six women of Asian descent — at three Atlanta-area spas, focused on his ties to a Southern Baptist congregation.

Long’s arrest sparked a barrage of stories and columns on evangelical theology, racism and “purity culture,” including a Religion News Service op-ed headlined “Blaming Christians for the Atlanta shootings isn’t persecution, it’s prosecution.”

On the other hand, Ahmad Al Aliwi Alissa’s Muslim background has figured less prominently — so far — in reporting on the suspect in Monday’s massacre that claimed 10 lives at a King Soopers grocery store in Boulder, Colorado.

In profiling the suspect, some major news organizations haven’t mentioned his religious affiliation at all. RNS has emphasized concerns that Alissa’s arrest might ramp up “Islamophobia” and spark hate crimes as Muslims gather in congregational settings. (It’s a familiar storyline, going at least back to 9/11.)

“I think there definitely is a double standard,” said Warren Smith, an evangelical who serves as president of the independent charitable giving watchdog

Smith, a longtime investigative reporter, offers this advice for covering a mass shooting: Stick to the facts. Avoid speculating on the gunman’s motives. Focus on the victims and the helpers.

“The perpetrator’s story will have an opportunity to come out in the legal process,” Smith said. “Let coverage of that process be the place where the perpetrator’s story is told factually, dispassionately, empathetically.”

But the facts, not a double standard, are the reason for the different emphases in the Georgia and Colorado cases, said a journalist friend who is reporting on the Boulder massacre.

“The big difference to me is that police investigators brought up the ‘sex addiction’ question quickly and directly in Atlanta, which led people to seek where that guilt came came, which led to religious background,” my friend said. “Here in Boulder, where I am reporting, it’s the suspect’s friends from high school and one 2017 affidavit re: a different, lesser crime (assault) that have raised any religious questions.

“It seems clear that religious guilt over sex was a big factor in Atlanta. It seems like bullying because of Muslim faith isn’t yet directly connected in Boulder.”

At Religion Unplugged, contributor Paul Marshall makes this case: “Enough with the hot takes: Mass shooters have complicated motives.”

Finally, I want to turn to Joe Hight, a Pulitzer Prize-winning editor who is the Edith Kinney Gaylord Endowed Chair of Journalism Ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma.

News organizations “can play a role in stigmatizing a whole religion or mental health issue by overemphasizing or overplaying that in the coverage,” warns Hight, who was my editor at The Oklahoman during our coverage of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.

“I tend to think there is too much emphasis on the perpetrators anyway, thus potentially causing copycat behavior,” he added. “It is something that the media have been in denial about for many years and need to reconsider in determining how much coverage is sufficient or even warranted.

“That doesn’t mean not drawing attention to issues that arise when a certain ethnicity or religion is targeted because of the pandemic or mass trauma. It means not sensationalizing perpetrators over an act involving victims, especially in repetitive or overhyped coverage.”

I agree, as I’ve mentioned before. I was especially pleased to see the Denver Post’s Wednesday front page give prominent play to pictures of victims while not including a photograph of the suspect.

Read more on best practices for covering victims.

Power Up: The Week’s Best Reads

1. ‘God has sort of been preparing us for this’: An Alabama pastor and his wife await the birth of conjoined twins.

They tell their emotional story — full of faith-filled details — to Carol Robinson of the Alabama Media Group, which includes the Birmingham News.

2. The Atlanta shooter targeted my community. He also came from my former church: This first-person piece by pastor Chul Yoo paints a different portrait of Crabapple First Baptist Church than emerged in much of last week’s news coverage.

“Those who know Crabapple First Baptist only as the church that had posted the baptism and testimony of a young man who went on to kill eight people are bound to have a distorted view,” the former Crabapple pastor writes. “It’s hard for us to imagine him among a congregation full of generous, caring, Christ-centered people, but that’s who I know Crabapple to be. Its members remain my close friends.”

CONTINUE READING: “Double Standard? Treatment Of Boulder Suspect’s Religion Raises The Question,” by Bobby Ross, Jr., at Religion Unplugged.

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