by Adriana Janovich
When a former student opened fire last week at Oikos University in Oakland, Calif., reporters scrambled to cover the crime. It was breaking news on the police beat, the deadliest school shooting since the 2007 massacre at Virginia Tech and, according to the San Jose Mercury News, the largest mass killing in Oakland's history. It left seven dead and three injured.
Information about the alleged shooter and his possible motive quickly emerged. Later, victims' identities were released. Bloggers weighed in. And news outlets across the country — from the New York Times, the Associated Press, National Public Radio, CNN, the Oakland Tribune and BerkeleyPatch, among others — posted ongoing coverage.
Yet little of that considerable volume of reporting included a clear presentation of the religion angle. Reporters largely ignored the fact the killing spree took place during Holy Week, one of the most sacred times on the Christian calendar. Most failed to mention that police found the gun on Good Friday. While almost all acknowledged that the shooting occurred at a small, private Christian college, details were — at best — scant or confusing.
And that's how they remain. More than a week later, little is known about the school — other than it caters to Korean-American students, offers classes in Bible studies, nursing, Asian medicine and music, and was the site of a terrible tragedy.
Reporting breaking news — especially the context around violent deaths — is difficult. The crime scene can be chaotic, even dangerous. Sources are often in shock, too upset to talk to reporters regardless of whether they are otherwise reliable. But how helpful is it to include speculation from a source who has never heard of the school and can only guess about its religiosity?
Most of the Oikos stories that include religion-related details do so merely in passing, and mostly by quoting statements from the school's website. One bylined blog post in particular seems simply to have strung together bits of text from the site. The school was variously described in other outlets as “fundamentalist,” “evangelical,” “protestant” — with a lower-case P — and “Catholic.” It doesn't help to note the school is affiliated with a San Francisco university or Oakland church if little is known about those institutions.
While memorials were being planned and more meaningful stories could have been written, one writer wanted to know: “Why name a school — or a yogurt, or a sustainable construction site, or an academic journal —'Oikos' in the first place?” Calls to the school “were answered by people whose minds were on other things — and who did not speak enough English to answer questions.”
When Holy Week was referenced, it was typically in Christian media or by clergy, like the “Roamin' Catholic Priest,” chaplain for the Oakland police and fire departments, who spent most of his post recognizing responders. A few outlets mentioned Holy Week in a single sentence.
Language barriers as well as religious and cultural differences might have limited coverage. Competition for the latest updates also complicates matters. But in stories where faith is concerned, discrepancies and mistakes — even in initial drafts — highlight the findings of a recent Knight Chair-Bliss Institute study, which revealed that less than one-fifth of journalists say they are “very knowledgeable” about religion. On the other hand, most Americans — nearly 70 percent — say they're interested in more complex coverage, and the majority of reporters and readers agree — some 51.8 percent and 57.1 percent, respectively — that news media “does a poor job of explaining religion in society.”
In the wake of the Oikos shooting, there's need for follow-up on a faith community that found itself in the spotlight because of a crisis. Otherwise, the small, Christian school focused on faith and healing will remain largely unknown — and maybe misunderstood — save for this tragedy.
Adriana Janovich is an Annenberg Fellow in the specialized journalism program at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. She's interested in reporting stories about education, immigration, youth, religion, lifestyles and social issues.