Homo sapiens in the newsroom: The struggle to get complicated stories early, yet accurate

EDITOR'S NOTE: If you have followed mainstream religion news over (yikes) the past few decades then you know the byline of Ira Rifkin, with Religion News Service, United Press International, The Los Angeles Daily News, Beliefnet.com and a host of other news organizations. He's the kind of savvy veteran who edits a book entitled "Spiritual Leaders Who Changed the World: The Essential Handbook to the Past Century of Religion." In recent years, I had the pleasure of meeting with students in his religion-reporting seminar at the University of Maryland at College Park.

Ira and I have been talking about religion-beat trends linked to global news, an area in which he has considerable expertise. Here's a guest column -- a memo to journalists on the beat -- that grew out of that. Let's all hope for more. -- Terry Mattingly 


By Ira Rifkin

Hope I'm not too far out on on a limb if I argue that, despite the growth of news hound-algorithms, journalists remain run-of-the-mill Homo sapiens. That is to say we are fated to struggle with making sense of the world we have appointed ourselves to explain using the same cognitive tools as everyone else. We have no magical aptitude for insight.

Magical thinking, of course, is another matter.

I'm referring to journalists who claim adherence to traditional American-style journalism for breaking news stories, as opposed to analysis or opinion pieces. Nor am I talking about the Web's evolving free-form paradigm. I'm talking about old-school "American model of the press" journalism that's theoretically balanced and fair-minded, strives for accuracy, is consciously unbiased and tries not to get ahead of the known facts.

For this sort of journalist two currently ongoing and important questions are, when is it appropriate to link a terror act to Muslims or Islam, and what is the line between a reasonable conclusion and Islamophobia?

There is much handwringing. But prepare yourself for a good deal more of that this week when the White House hosts a Summit on Countering Violent Extremism Wednesday. The White House announcement of the need for the summit -- this should come as no surprise -- does not mention Islam or Muslims. But it does reference recent murderous attacks in Paris, Ottawa and Sydney, each of them perpetrated by individuals identified as Muslims.

A recent USA Today piece, based on a press release from LifeWay Research purporting to measure American attitudes toward Islam, Sharia law and ISIS/ISIL/Islamic State (choose your moniker), also hints at this struggle over the proper use of these emotionally charged terms. It, too, avoids the terms Islamic terrorism or Islamophobia. Not that the story necessarily should have, given its limited focus on one poll. 

LifeWay also did a separate survey of American senior Protestant clergy, both self-identified evangelicals and mainliners. LifeWay is Southern Baptist Convention-affiliated and its findings are intended in the main to aid Protestant churches, which I presume is why it limited its clergy questioning to Protestants.

LifeWay's release (.pdf here) led with one in three Americans, 37 percent, according to its poll, saying they "are worried about (Islamic) Sharia law." This, the release adds, is an indication, that "Americans remain uneasy over the place of Islam in the United States and in the world." USA Today led with the survey findings that 27 percent of Americans and 45 percent of the senior clergy polled say ISIS reflects "a true indication of what Islam looks like when Islam controls a society." Among a host of other interesting findings, LifeWay also found that 76 percent of the senior pastors surveyed support U.S. military action against the outrageously barbaric group "to protect Christians" in Syria and Iraq. 

Chalk the differing ledes up to the subjectivity of news judgments. Or the need for a story resulting from a quick press release rewrite augmented by a call to the issuing party's spokesperson to snag a fresh quote to pass the smell test that allows the product to be considered staff-produced journalism. This happens.

I'm suspicious about polls reflecting any truth larger than its respondents said at a particular moment. And I do not doubt for a second that attacks perpetuated by individuals or groups with Muslim self-identities are on the rise and are quite alarming. But why do the majority of Americans and their clergy polled by LifeWay believe as they say they do? 

Why believe Sharia law is a realistic threat to the American legal establishment? Why do so many believe that ISIS is the true face of Islam and not just a fringe perversion utterly reviled by "real Muslims"? And by the way, who gets to say who is a "real" Muslim, given the religion's many global permutations and utter lack of anything close to a unifying and authoritative hierarchy? 

The answer, of course, is that they believe what they think they believe, and know what they think they know, in great measure because of what journalists tell them. That's our role; we're still the general public's eyes and ears. Absent human omniscience, I know of no better system for getting the word out about distant people, places and events.

The rules of American journalism meant to bolster accuracy and fairness can be confining. I concluded as soon as I heard about the shooting attacks in Copenhagen Saturday that this latest assault on Western-style free speech and Jews was another case of Islamic terrorism. Shots at a free speech event featuring a cartoonist who mocked the Prophet Muhammad. Followed by shots at a synagogue. A no brainer. But I did not have to take public responsibility for my conclusion by filing copy.

I noticed -- as did GetReligionista James Davis -- that the early New York Times Web stories Sunday stuck closely to the traditional American journalistic script. The Times waited for Danish officials to utter the requisite words about the suspect's identity and motive before reporting what I and I'm sure many others had already concluded in the privacy. This despite reports throughout the day by Danish media that the dead suspect had an unmistakably Muslim name.

American Arab and Muslim organizations following virtually every similar attack caution Americans, and journalists above all, about rushing to generalize about Islam and Muslims. Snap assumptions foster Islamophobia, they say. They have a point. Remember the early assumptions made about the Oklahoma City federal building bombing? Still, the internal rush to judgement is a knee-jerk human response. It's no wonder that non-journalists often find it difficult to fathom that what seems so clear to them remains unstated in news reports trying to adhere strictly to the traditional American journalism protocol.

And what about Craig Stephen Hicks, charged with the recent shooting deaths of three Muslims in North Carolina? Muslims insisted his alleged actions constituted a hate crime, and even an act of terror, fueled by Islamophobia. Yet as of this writing, that's not what the authorities in North Carolina have asserted. Are they simply diminishing the importance of attacks on Muslim as their critics claim? Or are they trying not to get ahead of what they actually know?

I started this post by noting that I consider journalists inherently no better equipped than others to make snap judgments -- despite their training and the great influence our decisions can have. These questions will not lessen in importance anytime soon. If anything, it unfortunately appears, the debates they generate will only grow louder and more emotional.

In the heat of a breaking story, the best journalists can do is to keep in check their personal bias to the degree they can, and to try to stick to the material evidence at hand as a deadline nears. Make caution the byword. That's what has characterized the very best of American journalism.

Words do have consequences. Sometimes serious ones. This should be evident again at tomorrow's White House summit. Take note of how it goes.

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