Misusing labels: A preying Presbyterian
Published 3:26 pm Friday, August 17, 2012
Once again, shocked onlookers painted from familiar palettes as they described the latest young man to march into the public square with his guns blazing.
The alleged killer was a moody, quiet loner who excelled at school. He was a normal guy who loved movies and super-hero tales, only he cheered for the villains. When hanging out in bars, he was usually sitting alone.
Journalists also quoted people who knew the family and said that James Holmes was once, as The Los Angeles Times noted, “heavily involved in their local Presbyterian church” in San Diego.
You see, even a kid from a normal church can evolve into someone who dyes his hair red, buys 6,000 rounds of ammo, girds himself in a full body-armor suit and, when surrendering to Aurora, Colo., police, identifies himself as the Joker, the incarnation of postmodern evil.
“What does ‘Presbyterian’ mean in this context?” asked Aly Colon, a nationally known journalism ethics consultant. “It’s like no one really stopped to ask if there was there something about this particular label — the actual content of this word — that connected in any way to this event.
“Does this kind of label give readers anything to stand on? … It’s like these words are hovering up in the sky, with no connection to the facts on the ground,” he said.
Truth is, in Southern California, “Presbyterian” can describe everything from evangelical megachurches to oldline Protestant congregations on the religious left.
So was the Holmes family active in the liberal Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) or the conservative Presbyterian Church in America? How about the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, the Bible Presbyterian Synod, the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church, the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America or the American Presbyterian Church?
Then again, journalists were soon reporting that this family has been active — for nearly a decade — in some kind of Lutheran congregation.
The problem, explained Colon, is that journalists assigned to cover these media storms in the digital age are trying to report as much information as they can, as fast as they can, as easily as they can, while competing against legions of websites, Twitter feeds, 24-hour cable news and, often, smartphone videos uploaded to YouTube by eyewitnesses. Reporters are tempted to use as many easy labels and stereotypes as possible, simply to save time and space.
Almost a decade ago, Colon wrote a Poynter.org essay entitled “Preying Presbyterians?” about a similar media blitz in which a gunman who killed an abortion-clinic doctor was constantly identified as a “former Presbyterian minister.” As it turned out, Paul Hill had become so radical that he had already been ejected from a small Presbyterian flock that was very conservative, one that opposed any use of violence during protests.
None of the mainstream news reports he read, wrote Colon, explained why it mattered that this man had once been some kind of Presbyterian. It was just a religious label with no real content.
“As journalists, we choose words carefully and conscientiously. We select nouns and adjectives to advance the story. We connect dots. We make points. We clarify. We explain,” wrote Colon. “So when I see the word ‘Presbyterian,’ I expect an explanation somewhere in the story that tells me why I need to know that. I would expect the same if other terms were used, such as ‘Catholic,’ ‘Episcopalian,’ ‘Christian,’ ‘Jew,’ ‘Mormon,’ ‘Hindu,’ ‘Buddhist,’ ‘Muslim’ or ‘Pagan.’ “
What he wrote then remains true today, as journalists try to find and assemble the pieces of the bloody Aurora puzzle. If religion is going to be included in the coverage, stressed Colon, reporters must work to “connect faith to facts.”
In other words, it will be crucial to learn the details of Holmes’ real life, in the here and now. Journalists must learn how he spent his time, spent his money and made the decisions that appear to have ended and altered so many lives. If faith — or some other worldview — is part of that equation, then so be it.
“It’s our duty to drill down and to find facts that add clarity,” said Colon. “Maybe this young man once had a membership in a particular Presbyterian church with a particular theology. So what? How is that faith connected to the facts of what happened in Aurora?
“There must be a connection, or what’s the point?”