Misreporting the Fort Hood mass shootingsBy Clement Tan Nov 07, 2009 12:01AM UTC
The New York Times couldn’t confirm it, but reported a disparaging comment written by somebody of a similar name anyway. The Associated Press ran a full, related story — based on unconfirmed quotes — on the alleged Muslim perpetrator of Thursday’s unfortunate shooting incident at Fort Hood allegedly yelling “Allahu Akbar” as he fired on his unsuspecting victims. The Daily Beast decided to run this same tidbit as a lead on their landing page too. See this visual comparison between The Times and The Daily Beast.
How is this going to help the American public form a coherent picture of reality in their heads? How is this not going to further inflame American public sentiment towards Muslims? I am not saying we must conceal such elements in reporting a story, but being self-reflexive and according a person’s ethnicity and religious beliefs adequate context is also part of the reporting process. It’s about being fair and balanced, no?
And when news commentators — and it’s not just Fox News and “conservative” outlets this time — start asking why and then proceed to frame it as an “act of terror,” they ignore facts such as the man’s long record of service in the army before that and more importantly, how his state of mind could have been the result of stress caused by his impending field deployment.
One of the gravest first lessons I learnt at Columbia Journalism School is not to make an issue out of a person’s ethnicity more than it is necessary. Sure, it’s a call on news judgment. But when in doubt, I remembered my RW1 instructors tell me, don’t make it your lede and the main point of your story. If you decide to use it as a factor, use it further down in the story. Provide adequate context, but don’t distort reality was the message I learnt.
Just because the person at the center of the unfortunate Fort Hood shootings yesterday (Wednesday) was a devout Muslim does not automatically make his actions neccessarily a terrorist one. I am not defending Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan’s alleged position here, I am attacking the obsession that American media outlets have with equating any unfortunate acts committed by Muslims as “acts of terror”.
Sure, my teachers might have been Hispanic and African Americans and some might say, they are therefore more predisposed to recognizing such biases, but that argument is moot because everybody has their own set of biases. As a reporter, it’s about recognizing what they are and then deciding how much mitigating you need to do, to prevent them from distorting a story. Failure to do so would just reflect a reporter’s ignorance and lack of reporting nous, than the reality of the situation.
If anything, the way this story is covered is a reflection of the biases of the journalists and editors who are reporting the story. James Fallows wisely and almost prophetically laments how the American media would cover the latest shootings in America. To be sure, The Times did a reasonable job with fairness and balance, with stories like this, but there’s only one New York Times, and a gazillion other network television stations, for whom the issue of Hasan’s psychiatric condition would be lost in the myriad of conspiracy theories of how he was a homegrown terrorist and all those things that make the rest of the world and Americans who know better all roll their eyes and collectively sigh in resignation.
Because at the end of the day, nobody will ever know for sure why Hasan did what he did in that fit of madness, even if he does go on to say whatever he goes on to say to investigators and presumably, at the public trial — if he makes it alive. So while his Muslim faith might be a factor, it is not the only one. If you are looking for a reason why this madness occurred, why not see how this incident brings to fore the difficult position Muslims occupy in American society and how when that is further complicated by the stress and fear of impending military deployment to a war zone, fighting fellow Muslims. It would be then interesting to see how that would complicate Obama’s eventual Afghanistan decision if that eventually becomes the MAIN talking point.
Instead of that “more constructive” consequence though, I am pretty sure something of a vicious self-perpetuating cycle would result…which is just unfortunate, to say the least.