Seven tips for covering horrific events at houses of worship — and treating victims right
I love journalism. I love my fellow journalists. But as…
WHITE SETTLEMENT, Texas — A few minutes after noon Sunday, my iPhone started pinging with messages from friends — alerting me to a shooting at the West Freeway Church of Christ in this Fort Worth suburb.
“One of my friends’ parents goes there,” my sister, Christy Fichter, texted. “Said her dad was carrying … not sure if that means he shot the shooter or not. A little too close to home for sure.”
As it turned out, her Facebook friend Jaynette Barnes’ father — Jack Wilson — was the heroic church security team leader who stopped the bloodshed.
I fast-forwarded through the video until I came to the part that will be seared in my brain forever.
The former reserve sheriff’s deputy gunned down Keith Thomas Kinnunen, 43, after he fatally wounded two beloved Christians: Richard White, 67, and Anton “Tony” Wallace, 64. The shooting lasted just six seconds but felt like so much longer to those who endured it.
As I searched online for any reliable details, I came across a link to the church’s YouTube livestream of its Sunday morning assembly. I fast-forwarded through the video until I came to the part that will be seared in my brain forever.
I heard the shots. And the screams.
I saw the bodies fall.
And I burst into tears.
However, I quickly composed myself because I am a journalist. I had a job to do. Sadly, it’s one I’ve had to do far too often since my first experience with a major tragedy a quarter-century ago: the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing.
The rest of the afternoon is a virtual blur: I put together an initial story for The Christian Chronicle’s website. I posted on Facebook and Twitter about what I knew. I did an interview with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram about what I saw on the video. After authorities took down the video, I explained to a New York Times reporter who emailed me that I didn’t have access to it.
I had West Freeway minister Britt Farmer’s cell phone number in my contacts, but I chose not to call him in the immediate aftermath. I did send him an email expressing my interest in talking to him when he felt like it.
Shortly after 10 p.m. Sunday, he texted me and said he was free to talk. I got out of bed, where I was still following news of the shooting on social media, and called him.
My father, Bob Ross, and Farmer both attended the now-defunct White’s Ferry Road School of Preaching in West Monroe, La., albeit at different times. Our families knew each other at the old Midtown Church of Christ in Fort Worth in the 1980s. Decades later, Farmer is one of a few hundred ministers and church leaders on a reader feedback email list that I maintain for my Christian Chronicle work.
“It’s been a long day,” Farmer told me as we discussed the church’s plans for a service of healing the following night.
Farmer said he was getting inundated by media calls. But he didn’t want to talk to CNN or “Good Morning America.” He wanted to talk to me.
“I love you, brother. I’m praying for you. I’m just so sorry about all this.”
“I lost my best friend today,” he said, referring to White. “In fact, both of them were two of my best friends.”
Farmer told me he trusted me and knew that, even if I asked uncomfortable questions about what happened, it would be “from a good heart.” I told him I’d make the three-hour drive from my home in Oklahoma City to White Settlement the next morning.
“I love you, brother,” I told him before the call ended. “I’m praying for you. I’m just so sorry about all this.”
“I love your mom and dad a bunch,” Farmer replied. “I loved watching you grow up. You’ve done well, and I’m proud of you.”
I interviewed him the next day and was the only media type allowed in the members-only service Monday night. Farmer made a general statement to the press as scores of people gathered outside the church for a prayer vigil.
The Associated Press and many other major news organizations quoted my Christian Chronicle coverage in their reports. Religion News Service, Religion Unplugged and Christianity Today all picked up the Christian Chronicle story on the prayer service.
A journalist friend texted me and said of Farmer’s approach, “That’s nice for The Christian Chronicle but really bad for media relations.”
I don’t know.
I’m a proud journalist who believes in the vital role of the free press. But at times such as these, I often wonder — going all the way back to the Oklahoma City bombing — why our noble profession can’t come up with a better way to tell important stories without overwhelming victims.
In Farmer’s case, should he really be expected to respond to 150 media calls on the same day that two close friends are murdered in the most horrific fashion possible?
P.S. Don’t miss my friend Bud Kennedy’s Star-Telegram column on Thursday’s funeral service for White. It’s a really nice piece that — no surprise, given the quality of person/writer — treats the church’s experience with sensitivity and grace.
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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