In the immediate aftermath of the deadly shooting at West Freeway Church of Christ in Fort Worth, Texas, church Minister Britt Farmer gave an interview to one journalist: Bobby Ross Jr., the editor-in-chief of The Christian Chronicle and a columnist at Religion Unplugged.
Ross wrote about this in his column at Religion Unplugged last week, but I think it’s worth highlighting again that with both religion and guns, legacy media have not only lost their credibility, but are now losing their access when it’s needed most.
Farmer made a generic statement to the press on Sunday afternoon after the morning’s tragic events, but despite being inundated by media requests, he declined to appear on national morning shows or cable news.
“He didn’t want to do an in-depth interview with someone he didn’t know or trust,” Ross told The Federalist. “I suspect he feared how a conservative Christian minister in a pistol-packing congregation might be portrayed.”
These fears are not unfounded. Just days after the shooting at Marjory Stonema Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida last year, while students and parents were still freshly grieving, CNN hosted a televised town hall that turned out to be more of a scripted, anti-gun rally to attack Sen. Marco Rubio and then-National Rifle Association spokeswoman Dana Loesch.
During a segment on “bump stocks” after the Las Vegas massacre, CNN aired a photo of a rifle equipped with a grenade launcher and silencer, not a bump stock. In USA Today’s coverage of the church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas, the newspaper published an illustration of an AR-15 rifle with a “chainsaw bayonet.” And those are just media fumbles on guns, not religion, a topic on which journalists are even more illiterate.
Now, in the wake of these tragedies, opinion writers suggest conservative Christians stuff their prayers where the sun doesn’t shine, and even question the authenticity of said prayers (“I doubt they even pray at all in these times,” writes a Salon editor). Conversely, conservative Christians often believe the press truly is the “enemy of the people.” There’s a disconnect between these groups, and it’s bad for everyone involved.
Thankfully, some journalists, like Ross, with connections to faith communities are able to serve both the press and religious institutions well when the need rises. Religion reporter Peter Smith at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette won a Pulitzer for his coverage of the Tree of Life synagogue, and Jennifer Berry Hawes of the Post and Courier has said her experience as a “faith and values” reporter contributed to her in-depth coverage of the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in 2015.
As the editor-in-chief of a publication focused on Churches of Christ, Ross was the reporter Farmer texted on Sunday night, after just losing two of his close friends.
“As far as I know, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and the Dallas Morning News don’t have religion writers to go along with their crime, politics, and sports reporters. So when something like this happens, there’s not a known entity who is trusted in the church community,” Ross said.
Reporters who “get” religion are imperative for local communities, but they can’t make up for the gaping holes in our national news. As local news wanes and national news dominates the news consumption of most individuals, relying on the local religion reporter is both crucial and unsustainable.
But with the way national outlets have botched their coverage of both religion and firearms, I don’t see many pastors picking up the phone anytime soon.