Houston, we have a problem: What's wrong with all those 'Muslim backlash' stories in the media

The backlash is back.

Back on the front page, that is:


Before dissecting today's Houston Chronicle story, a little background: After the San Bernardino massacre, the New York Post splashed the inflammatory headline "Muslim Killers" across its tabloid cover. At that time, we noted that — ever since 9/11 — the phrase "Muslim backlash" has entered America's lexicon. 

In follow-up posts, we questioned media reporting a "surge" in anti-Muslim crime without providing hard data to back up that factual claim. Moreover, we pointed out bias by media using the term "Islamophobia" without bothering to define it.

That leads to Houston, where firefighters battled a Christmas Day blaze at a storefront mosque. Investigators called the fire "suspicious," citing multiple points of origin. 

The fire serves as the news peg for the Chronicle's Page A1 report today on anxiety in the area's Muslim community:

Even before investigators determined that a Christmas Day fire at a southwest Houston mosque was set deliberately, Muslims in the Houston area were on edge.
Recent terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif., were followed by threats to area Muslims on social media and elsewhere. Now, in the aftermath of the arson at the mosque, local Muslim leaders and public officials are organizing a meeting to try to calm fears and ease tensions. 
M.J. Khan, the president of the Islamic Society of Greater Houston, said he understands the community’s growing anxiety. 
“Families and children come, and we do take precautions to make sure people are protected and feel safe,” said Khan, whose organization operates the mosque. Still, he added, “These are places of worship, and we cannot make them fortresses.”
The fire broke out at around 2:45 p.m. on Christmas Day at the small mosque inside the Savoy Plaza strip center, near Wilcrest Drive and Bellfort Avenue. About 80 firefighters helped extinguish the blaze, which significantly damaged the worship hall.

Given the fire, the Muslim community's concerns are certainly newsworthy. I have no problem with the story angle or the report's above-the-fold placement.

But here's the problem with this 1,300-word piece (roughly twice as long as a typical daily newspaper story): It attacks the issue with a giant ax when what's really needed is a surgical knife.

What I mean: On a story such as this, journalists need to take extra care to be precise, to report what they know — and no more. Readers deserve hard facts, not squishy generalizations.

Instead, the Chronicle makes the sweeping statement up high that "threats to area Muslims on social media and elsewhere" followed the Paris and San Bernardino attacks. OK, what threats? (Insert crickets.) 

The newspaper never provides any evidence of actual threats, such as police reports. The story does contain this brief note:

Waqar Mehmood was browsing his Sugar Land neighborhood’s social media page when he saw posts from a neighbor calling for the community to cleanse itself of Muslims using pig’s blood. 

Did the Chronicle view the social media page and confirm the posts cited? What is the neighbor's name? What exactly did the neighbor say? How did other neighbors respond? Were the posts reported to authorities? Are those authorities investigating? Do they consider the posts threats?

Similarly, the report fails to connect the dots here:

When planning began for the (Muslim American Society’s center in the Katy area), some neighbors didn’t like the idea. A sign reading “Jesus Is Lord” still looms behind a chain-link fence along the center’s parking lot. But that relationship has improved over the years, according to Ghazali.

Run for your lives! The neighbors believe "Jesus is Lord!"

But as long as the Chronicle is going to bring up the sign, why not seek comment from the person who put it up? Why not ask if that person is advocating violence against Muslims? Or is there a chance that "Jesus is Lord" might have a different message? 

Later, the story says:

Women have stopped wearing their hijabs, or head coverings, in public.

But the Chronicle doesn't actually quote any such women.

Midway through the report, the newspaper throws this alarming claim out there:

CAIR attributed a recent unprecedented spike in hate crimes directed at mosques and Muslims nationally at least in part to rhetoric by Republican presidential candidates.

Once again, we have reporting with a giant ax. What difference would a surgical knife make? The Chronicle would provide actual hard data to go along with reports that CAIR itself has characterized as "anecdotal." Moreover, a little context on the big picture would be helpful.

My plea for journalists pursuing the "Muslim backlash" story: Do some actual reporting.

Yes, treat Muslims (and other people of faith) with fairness and respect. By all means, listen to their concerns, and report them fully. But don't ditch normal, necessary journalistic skepticism and investigative techniques for the sake of a politically correct storyline. 

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