BBC

Boko Haram strikes again, in attack that burns generic children alive in their huts

Boko Haram strikes again, in attack that burns generic children alive in their huts

 It's a logical question: At this point, does it really matter whether the children burned alive in the latest Boko Haram attack were Muslims or Christians?

On one level, the answer is clearly, "no." It's clear that the forces of Boko Haram -- now loyal to the Islamic State caliphate -- kill anyone who stands in the way of their movement. Perhaps it doesn't matter whether those dying are crying out to Jesus or to Allah.

Yet I would like to argue that this detail does matter. At the very least, I think it is significant that editors at the Associated Press -- who prepare the copy read by most consumers outside of elite news markets -- think that readers do not want to know that detail.

Stop and think about that. America contains a significant number of Christians. If those who died were Christians, are we to assume that many readers would not want to know about these new martyrs and confessors, some of them children?

However, if you look at the images, it certainly appears that the village burned in this attack was a majority Muslim community. I would argue that it is just as important for American news consumers to be reminded -- again and again -- that Boko Haram is slaughtering just as many Muslims, if not more, than Christians. Why? We will come back to that.

I read the following AP report all the way through before it hit me that the identity of the victims was left completely and utterly vague, as if this fact didn't matter. Here is how the report opens:

A survivor hidden in a tree says he watched Boko Haram extremists firebomb huts and heard the screams of children burning to death, among 86 people officials say died in the latest attack by Nigeria's homegrown Islamic extremists.

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Fighting Boko Haram: 'Ghosts' haunt otherwise fine New York Times report

Fighting Boko Haram: 'Ghosts' haunt otherwise fine New York Times report

Applause for the New York Times for keeping an eye on Nigeria, which has been struggling for years with Boko Haram terrorists. But the clapping is a bit muted because of the religious "ghosts" in the latest story.

As the most populous nation in Africa -- the Times puts it at 190 million -- Nigeria can be seen as a bellwether for the rest of the continent. And rather than a dry recital of official stats and statements, the 1,370-word Times story captures the dread under which many Nigerians live:

DAKAR, Senegal — A sense of fear nags at Hauwa Bulama every time she leaves home.
She worries that suicide bombers might be lurking at the vegetable stand where she shops for her six children. They could turn up at the hospital where she takes her relatives. Any woman in a hijab could have a suicide belt under her clothes, she fears. The frequent public announcements to avoid crowded areas in her northern Nigerian city only heighten her anxiety.
"You are always afraid," said Ms. Bulama, who lives in Maiduguri, a frequent target of the ruthless Islamist insurgent group Boko Haram. "When you take your child to be immunized, you don’t know who is seated next to you. You don’t know who is hiding what."
For Ms. Bulama and countless others in northern Nigeria and across the Lake Chad region, the victories scored by President Muhammadu Buhari’s multinational campaign against Boko Haram since taking office in May have mattered little to their daily lives.

The article acknowledges that the government of President Buhari has killed many Boko Haram fighters and shrunk their areas of control. An international fighting force, which includes Chad, Niger, Nigeria and Cameroon -- with armored vehicles from the United States -- has pushed back and scattered the terrorists. Buhari has even boasted that "technically we have won the war."

Yet the conflict has created more than 2.4 million refugees, the Times reports. The 200-plus schoolgirls kidnapped in 2014 are still missing, a clear sign of poor intelligence gathering. And the suicide bombings have continued -- two more in the last two weeks.

The newspaper praises Buhari for replacing ineffective army commanders and moving headquarters into the battle zone of northeastern Nigeria. But rebuilding the military will take money, something in short supply in the wake of the slump in oil prices.

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Jew attacked because of his kippah -- why do few media want to know what that is?

Jew attacked because of his kippah -- why do few media want to know what that is?

Why wear a kippah? What does the Jewish skullcap mean?

In France, one meaning is "walking target," as an attack on a Jewish teacher in Marseilles shows.  

The brutal machete attack has prompted a public debate among Jewish leaders over whether to stop wearing the traditional headgear in public. Beyond that, however, media accounts seem to lose interest.

Here are some of the horrendous details, as reported in the International Business Times:

A teenager who attacked a Jewish teacher with a machete in France claimed he acted in the name of the Islamic State (Isis/Daesh) group, authorities said. Marseille prosecutor Brice Robin confirmed the stabbing was anti-Semitic and involved some degree of premeditation.
The victim, a 35-year-old teacher at the Franco-Hebraic Institute in the southern city, was on his way to work on 11 January when the boy of Turkish Kurd origins charged him from behind.
The youth, who will turn 16 next week, first slashed the man's shoulder and then went after him as he fled. The teacher eventually fell on to the ground and fought off a second attack using his arms, legs and a holy book, Robin said.
The assailant dropped the weapon and ran away before being caught by police some 10 minutes later. Upon arrest he invoked Allah and IS also telling officers that "the Muslims of France dishonour Islam and the French army protects Jews".

You could hardly ask for stronger religious angles in a news story: jihadism, anti-Semitism, marking an enemy by his religious garb, use of a holy book as a shield. Even the machete recalls the half-dozen hacking attacks on secular bloggers in Bangladesh.

But like IBTimes, most media ignored or downplayed the religious facets. They didn’t even ask about the "holy book" used as a shield by the teacher. Among the very few that did was Yahoo News; it says the book was a Torah, a collection of the first five books of the Bible -- the basis of Jewish law and theology.

More typical is the account by the BBC:

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Mercy, media! Stop the snark about the pope's Holy Year!

Mercy, media! Stop the snark about the pope's Holy Year!

I like puns and wordplay as much as anyone else (actually, more than anyone else, to hear some of my friends complain). But when a joke is a little too obvious -- as when headlines quote Pope Francis saying that mercy "trumps" judgment -- then it gets, well, a little too obvious.

Two of them did it yesterday, in announcing the Jubilee Year of Mercy declared by Francis. It's supposed to be a year when the faithful gain forgiveness for sins and rededicate themselves to modeling Christian values. But at least two stories start with a nudge-nudge, wink-wink toward American politics:

"Opening the Holy Year, Francis says mercy always trumps judgment," says Crux, briefly forsaking its usual high road.

"Pope Francis: Mercy trumps moralizing as he launches Holy Year," echoes the Salt Lake Tribune, as the cap for a dismaying blend of fact and sarcasm.

Francis, of course, said nothing about presidential politics or the judgmental Donald Trump in launching the Year of Mercy. He merely reminded us to care about what he believes God cares about, and to act in accordance with our beliefs. And in grand papal imagery, he symbolized the opening of the year by pushing open a large bronze Holy Door at St. Peter's Basilica, allowing clergy and pilgrims alike to enter and find mercy.

After Crux pushed past its little dig at Trump, it did provide a nice article. It also focuses on a quote used in many other media reports:

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Hey New York Times editors: Why ignore hellish details in story of Ugandan marytrs?

Hey New York Times editors: Why ignore hellish details in story of Ugandan marytrs?

The questions for this morning are rather simple: (a) Who were the Ugandan martyrs, (b) why were they killed and (c) why are they so symbolic for millions of Christians in the growing churches of Africa?

These questions are especially important, since Pope Francis has just visited Uganda to mark the 50th anniversary of the canonization of the Catholics among the 45 believers who -- with Anglican martyrs, as well -- were tortured, beheaded, hacked to death and burned on the orders of King Mwanga II in the late 1800s.

Why did this happen? What does it have to do with the rapid growth, and the beliefs, of the church in modern Africa?

Quite a few mainstream news organizations -- The New York Times in particular -- were vague, silent or inaccurate when dealing with the answers to some of these questions. But let's start with a report from CBS and the Associated Press that included the essential details.

NAMUGONGO, Uganda -- Pope Francis on Saturday honored the Ugandan Christians who were burned alive rather than renounce their faith a century ago, urging today's Catholics to follow in their missionary zeal and spread the faith at home and abroad.
A somber Francis prayed at shrines dedicated to the 23 Anglican and 22 Catholic martyrs who were killed between 1885 and 1887 on the orders of a local king trying to thwart the influence of Christianity in his central Ugandan kingdom. According to historians, the Christians were also killed because they refused the king's sexual advances, citing the church's opposition to homosexuality.

This report also touched on the fact that the sexual politics of Africa remain strikingly complex and even tragic, as believers here wrestle with a web of colonial-era and tribal beliefs and customs, with the constant pressure of Islam on many borders.

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Pope, Paris and ISIS: mainstream media coverage broad but shallow

Pope, Paris and ISIS: mainstream media coverage broad but shallow

Pope Francis didn’t just criticize the ISIS attacks in Paris. He pretty much damned them. His weekend reactions used both religious and humanitarian terms -- "blasphemy," "not human," "homicidal hatred." It was some of Francis' strongest language yet.

But not everyone in mainstream media looked much below the surface -- either at his comments or those of ISIS.

Catholic News Service, of course, spotted the religious content quickly:

The attacks, Pope Francis said, were an "unspeakable affront to the dignity of the human person."
"The path of violence and hatred cannot resolve the problems of humanity, and using the name of God to justify this path is blasphemy," he said.
Pope Francis asked the thousands of people who gathered at St. Peter's for the Sunday midday prayer to observe a moment of silence and to join him in reciting a Hail Mary.
"May the Virgin Mary, mother of mercy, give rise in the hearts of everyone thoughts of wisdom and proposals for peace," he said. "We ask her to protect and watch over the dear French nation, the first daughter of the church, over Europe and the whole world."
"Let us entrust to the mercy of God the innocent victims of this tragedy," the pope said.

And other reports? Well, some simply patched together other reports. One of those was HuffPost, which linked to seven other stories in less than 230 words (although three were other HuffPo stories).  The article also cites Francis saying the attacks are part of a "piecemeal Third World War," drawn from an interview with TV2000, the network of the Italian Bishops' Conference.

It's a phrase he has often used. The Washington Times points out that he said much the same at an Italian World War I cemetery in 2014. But don’t give the Times too much credit for enterprise reporting: It linked to BBC's coverage of the pope's visit there.

Even the combined forces of CBS News and the Associated Press yielded a pitiful 280 words or so on Sunday. And it's nearly all soundbites: "blasphemy," "barbarity," "third world war," "no justification for these things." The main addition was his condolence to French President Francois Hollande, who vowed "merciless" war on ISIS.

One might excuse AP/CBS for haste because the report ran on Sunday morning, but no. Not when Crux, the Catholic newsmagazine of the Boston Globe, ran a more thorough report the day before -- a report that showed a Sunday update:

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Fighting Boko Haram: Media accounts tell more about the war than the enemy

Fighting Boko Haram: Media accounts tell more about the war than the enemy

I'm glad that mainstream media are keeping our attention on the ongoing tragedy of Nigeria and Boko Haram. But not everyone does it equally well -- and some of the better-known outfits, not as well as you'd expect.

The Nigerian military has resumed raids on the Islamist guerrilla group, rescuing hundreds of women and children; it has issued a "Wanted" poster of the top 100 leaders in the group; and an international task force is mustering for a new round of attacks on the militants.

All this is in multiple reports, but none of them has it all. And few offer background on the warped version of Islam that underlies Boko Haram's basic assumptions.

Some of the reports repeat the horrendous numbers: thousands dead, 2.1 million refugees since 2009. Those are vital stats to remember. But the reports also need to keep plain the ideology of Boko Haram.

Take yesterday's "Big Story" in the much-quoted Associated Press:

ABUJA, Nigeria (AP) -- Nigerian troops have rescued 338 captives, almost all children and women, from Boko Haram camps in a northeastern forest, the military said Wednesday.
Thirty extremists were killed Tuesday in attacks on two camps on the fringes of the Islamic insurgents' holdout in Sambisa Forest, according to a Defense Headquarters statement on social media.
Separately troops ambushed and killed four suspects on a bombing mission in northeastern Adamawa state, it said. Hundreds of people have died in suicide bombing attacks mainly targeting mosques and markets in recent months.

Did you notice the attribution? A "Defense Headquarters statement on social media." And no one was directly quoted or even named. This despite the fact that the much smaller African website Sahara Reporters did get a name -- Army spokesperson Colonel SK Usman -- although apparently only on a press release.

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Reciting the Shahadah: How would actual Tennessee parents describe their concerns?

Reciting the Shahadah: How would actual Tennessee parents describe their concerns?

If you follow the national news, you probably know that the state of Tennessee is involved in yet another battle over the role of Islam in the public square. There are some people here in my state who truly want to see Islam go away and who seem to think that the First Amendment's protection of religious liberty applies to some religious believers, but not others.

However, when one of these battles begins it is important for news consumers to ask a few basic questions about the coverage. Let's assume that we are talking about another battle about Islam and conservative forms of Christianity.

(1) Does the coverage assume that all of the people in each camp believe exactly the same things? Is there only one approach to Islam presented? Does the coverage assume that all evangelicals take the same approach to Islam?

(2) When reading about critics of Islam, are we reading their actual criticisms or only views that are being attributed to them by others? On the other side, are Muslims involved in the conflict allowed to describe their own beliefs in their own language?

In other words, are the journalists covering a debate or are they quoting the participants in the debate that fit a certain template of what the debate is about?

The current debate in Tennessee focuses on questions about what students in public schools should be taught about Islam and when they should be taught this material. Here is a typical description of what the fight is about, drawn from a new piece in The Tennessean. The lede focuses on a bill proposed by Republican Rep. Sheila Butt that would forbid the teaching of religious doctrine in Tennessee schools until the 10th grade.

Some parents complained after students were reportedly asked to write down "Allah is the only god" and memorize the five pillars of Islam. The complaints prompted statements from U.S. Rep. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., Butt and other conservative lawmakers blasting districts for possible indoctrination.

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Fired gay priest: AFP article packs two distortions into one story

Fired gay priest: AFP article packs two distortions into one story

Gotta hand it to Agence France-Presse. Its story on the Rev. Krzysztof Charamsa neatly packs two distortions in one lede.

In advancing Charamsa's interview with a TV channel, the article starts off limping:

Rome (AFP) - A high-ranking Polish priest who was fired after coming out as gay before the Vatican's key synod on the family said on Sunday that there was no "gay lobby" in the Church.
Krzysztof Charamsa told a private Italian television channel that he has "never met a gay lobby in the Vatican", referring to rumours of a network of homosexual priests.
"I met homosexual priests, often isolated like me... but no gay lobby," said Charamsa, adding that he also met gay priests who were "homophobes" and had "hatred for themselves and others".

You could almost use this story for a seminar on how not to write news.

To start: Charamsa was not fired as a priest. He was fired from his position as an assistant secretary in the Vatican-level Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith. Other media, like the New York Daily News, said more accurately that he was "dismissed from his post at the Vatican." The News also pointed out that Charamsa hadn't lost his credentials as a priest; that decision was left to his bishop.

Nor was Charamsa fired merely for coming out. He was fired for coming out at a press conference beside his male partner, calling for a change in church doctrine about homosexuality. He even issued a 10-point "liberation manifesto" against "institutionalised homophobia in the Church."

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