NYT: List of extremist attacks disturbs Muslim readers

Rachel Hall often finds media references to her Muslim faith hard to take and upsetting.

The recent coverage of a shooting in Ottawa – particularly a Times online compilation of incidents dating back as far as 2009 in which Islamic extremists carried out violent acts – added to her sense of frustration. As a result, the Bothell, Wash., resident wrote to me in protest:

In the article, the author has cherry-picked select cases from across North America, Europe and Australia that have no common threads except that they were planned or perpetrated by a person claiming to be a member of a Muslim community. In today’s world where we are constantly bombarded with a negative narrative about Islam, this kind of reporting only serves to demonize a faith of 1.6 billion people and fuels hate and prejudice against all Muslims who abide not only in North America but around the globe.

The people who perpetrate these acts do not represent me or my faith. They do not represent everyday Muslims, but in reading your article it would be easy to see how someone could be confused and think that all Muslims are terrorists. These extremists have hijacked my faith and yet we don’t hear this reported from news outlets such as yours. Instead, the media perpetually fuels fires of hate by not taking care to differentiate between the actions of a small band of crazy people and billions of average everyday individuals who just want to live their lives in peace.

Ms. Hall was one of a number of Muslim readers who wrote to me to say that were offended by that compilation. To address their complaints, I talked to two deputy international editors, Lydia Polgreen and Michael Slackman.

The editors made the point that the article was never intended to be seen on its own, but rather as a sidebar to the main news story. They said that in its disaggregated form, the list’s purpose could be misconstrued.

And, they said, the idea to do the compilation came about because editors recalled that there had been a number of very recent incidents in which people who identified themselves as Muslim had killed people in uniform.

“This case fit within the mold,” Mr. Slackman said. “These were attacks on individuals in uniform by radicalized people. There had been a rush of these events.” This article provided some useful context, he said.

Both editors said they understand the need to be sensitive to people’s faith. And they noted that the headline, by design, referred to “extremists,” leaving the words “Muslim” and “Islamic” out. Ms. Polgreen noted that in most of the cases in the compilation, the culprits were described not as lifelong Muslims but as recent converts or extremists.

“These were unusual Muslims,” she said, and the article portrayed them as such.

My take: There was valid news value in connecting the three very recent incidents in North America within a week’s time – all involving attacks on military or law-enforcement officials and all by apparent Islamic radicals. It reflected solid news judgment to recognize these connections, to compile the incidents, and even to make reference to a fourth, somewhat similar one last month in Oklahoma. And although reader sensitivities are always important, newsworthiness must trump those considerations. That’s the primary obligation to all Times readers.

Where the list ran into trouble, in my view, was in reaching back years and across continents to find other examples of Islamic perpetrators — as far as the Fort Hood attack in 2009, and as far afield as Australia and Brussels. I understand Ms. Hall’s complaint about “cherry-picking.”

Separately, I agree with the editors that the article made more sense if the reader realized that it was intended to be read alongside the news story about the Ottawa shooting – as part of a news package. But, as I’ve written before, that’s not how many articles are read now in the disaggregated world of web journalism. Each one stands alone for the reader, and has to hold up (as much as possible) in this isolated way.

Mr. Slackman and Ms. Polgreen told me that a better effort to connect such articles – for example, with links in each article to the other – is something that should happen more often. That would help.

This was written by NYT’s “public editor.” Reader comments are not terribly favourable: Example:

It is unfortunate, yet understandable, that the list of violent acts committed in the name of Islam makes Ms Hall uncomfortable. But facts are facts, and the Times simply compiled a list of publicly-available data into one easily accessible article.

Instead of trying to “shoot the messenger”, perhaps Ms Hall can take the advice of people like Tom Friedman, who has been asking for several years now, “Where are the voices of moderate Islam condemning these violent acts. When will the imams and Muslim leaders tell their followers, in their own languages, that violence committed by Shiites AND Sunnis is against Mohammed’s teachings?” I’m paraphrasing Mr Friedman here, but, I believe, accurately. When will Ms Hall and moderate Muslims everywhere rise up and denounce this violence?

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