Good Ol’ Sensationalism

Nothing beats sensationalism, at least when you’re a reporter or news service. I saw this headline from the AP via Fox News today, “Christian Drifter May Have Killed Two Couples in Separate Beach Murders, Police Say.”

What’s that? A Christian is responsible for two double murders? Well, before you Sam Harris -lovin’, Richard Dawkins -readin’, Christopher Hitchens -followin’ folks get all excited about another Christian person behaving un-Christlike, you might want to actually read the story.

Apparently, in 1972 a couple was killed on a beach in Vancouver. The case went cold, but much more recently, 2004, another couple was killed in a similar manner in New Mexico. What ties these two cases together is Joseph Henry Burgess who died in a shootout with police on July 16,2009. From the AP report, Burgess was a nomad of sort that has wondered all over the Canada and the U.S. but spent the last decade or so “burglarizing cabins in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains”. Perhaps the AP left out some information about Burgess’s life that makes him not just a drifter, but a “Christian Drifter”, but as far as I can tell from their own report there is no evidence that he was a Christian at all.

What, precisely, does the AP say about Burgess’s Christianity? Well, I’ll reproduce it in its entirety,

Burgess eventually made it out to the U.S. West Coast, where he lived in a religious commune run by the Children of God and called himself Job, in reference to the biblical figure, [retired RMCP officer] Creally said. He reportedly was kicked out of the commune’s boarding hosue after his rifle made other residents uncomfortable.

In the words of Porky Pig, “that’s all folks!” Sometime after 1972, when the Vancouver couple was killed, Burgess joined a commune in New Mexico and referred to himself as Job. As far as the AP sees it, that’s enough to be a Christian. Now I know that most Americans are nominal Christians, but this is really pushing that line.

From this report we know so much more about Burgess and nothing at all about his being a Christian. (One need not be a Christian to live in a Christian commune. Heck, just because a commune says it’s Christian doesn’t mean it actually is.) There are all sorts of alternatives besides “Christian Drifter.” Why not “Draft-dodging Drifter”, “Canada-loving Drifter”, “Cookie-stealing Drifter”, or even “Weird-creepy-guy-Drifter”? (Okay, that last one is a bit much.) Why not? Because labelling this guy a Christian is going to attract more attention. It doesn’t matter that we have not a shred of evidence that this guy actually was a Christian. That, my friends, is sensationalism.

(For a much shorter take on the AP’s complete lack of integrity, see Mark Cuban’s Twitter post here.)