Can journalists cover the rioters?

riotersRiots by their very nature are difficult for a journalist to cover. They are confusing, widespread, hectic and dangerous for everyone. Riots are kind of like war, except the rioters don't wear uniforms and are generally difficult people to interview. Unfortunately, our impressions of riots are often shaped by media accounts written days after the events unfold. It's pretty much impossible for anyone to get the story right in that amount of time, and sometimes it takes as many as 10 years for the facts to reveal themselves (most notably misconstrued in my opinion were the Los Angeles riots, which are still being sorted out by sociologists).

One of the more interesting angles of the Paris rioting story happens to be the issue of religion. Many news reports have downplayed religion. For instance, see this story posted on the New York Times website on the first death and the increase of arson.

Check out the first paragraph that deals with the issue of religion:

Though a majority of the youths committing the acts are Muslim, and of African or North African origin, the mayhem has yet to take on any ideological or religious overtones. Youths in the neighborhoods say second-generation Portuguese immigrants and even some children of native French have taken part.

In an effort to stop the attacks and distance them from Islam, France's most influential Islamic group issued a religious edict, or fatwa, condemning the violence.

"It is formally forbidden for any Muslim seeking divine grace and satisfaction to participate in any action that blindly hits private or public property or could constitute an attack on someone's life," the fatwa said, citing the Koran and the teachings of Muhammad.

You won't find this part of the story on the first page. In fact, appears 34 paragraphs deep into the story. If that is not the case of burying the news, I don't know what is.

On my way into work this morning, I heard a French Muslim leader being interviewed by the BBC adamantly declaring that the rioters were by no means acting for religious reasons. It was purely young men who lacked jobs and felt neglected by society. Must be the case, then, huh?

By contrast, this Newsweek piece takes the issue of religion head-on and with no apologies, but fails to follow up later in the piece:

"It's Baghdad here," the rioters shouted. Night after night last week, rage spread through the ghettos that ring Paris, then beyond to every corner of France. When a tear-gas canister exploded near a mosque in Clichy-sous-Bois on the fourth violent evening, a new cry went up. "Now this is war," said one of the vandals. Others cried "jihad."

The Washington Post's Molly Moore jumped on the "violence could spread to your backyard" story this morning, and as with most daily news stories, it contained little background on who these rioters were and exactly who in my backyard (or that of my girlfriend Noelle, who lives in London) would be rioting.

Associated Press reports of churches being set on fire in Lens and Sete has a reader, Terry, worried because the Bosnia war took a "new and ominous turn when the various parties began blowing up each other's churches and mosques."

If this New York Post article, which can hardly be considered an objective piece of journalism but more of a European-style essay, is correct, the BBC and the NYT will be looking awfully foolish for ignoring the religious overtones in the Paris riots. Here's a snippet:

With cries of "God is great," bands of youths armed with whatever they could get hold of went on a rampage and forced the police to flee.

The French authorities could not allow a band of youths to expel the police from French territory. So they hit back -- sending in Special Forces, known as the CRS, with armored cars and tough rules of engagement.

Within hours, the original cause of the incidents was forgotten and the issue jelled around a demand by the representatives of the rioters that the French police leave the "occupied territories." By midweek, the riots had spread to three of the provinces neighboring Paris, with a population of 5.5 million.

But who lives in the affected areas? In Clichy itself, more than 80 percent of the inhabitants are Muslim immigrants or their children, mostly from Arab and black Africa. In other affected towns, the Muslim immigrant community accounts for 30 percent to 60 percent of the population. But these are not the only figures that matter. Average unemployment in the affected areas is estimated at around 30 percent and, when it comes to young would-be workers, reaches 60 percent.

Maybe we should just wait for the sociologists to sort these riots out? Are journalists incapable of getting it right when it comes to riots? I would hope not.

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