Let us attend: Waiting for a religion shoe to drop in Boston

As you would expect, people were a bit tense last night on my commuter train from Union Station in Washington, D.C., back to Baltimore. If anyone was talking, they were talking about the Boston Marathon explosions and the other unexploded bombs found in that tense area.

Of course, police were everywhere near the U.S. Capitol. That was to be expected. And there was another element of the scene that was to be expected. I didn't hear anyone express the slightest doubt that they believed this would be shown to have been the work of a terrorist or terrorist with some kind of link to radical Islam.

That's the world that we live in, of course. That's the world journalists have to work in, as well. The early reports of a Saudi national being question and detained, but not arrested, did not help matters.

In other words, everyone is talking and now we are waiting for the religion shoe to drop, waiting to see the quality of (a) the information that government officials choose to release and (b) the additional information that journalists -- left, right and center -- attempt to dig up.

Everyone is being extra cautious -- as they should -- when it comes to the facts that they think they know at this point.

One of the main stories at The Boston Globe has the basics, with the "person of interest" angle played down. Note the plural language in the lede:

A changed Boston started the search for normalcy today as law enforcement continued its search for those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings that has so far claimed 3 lives, left more than 140 wounded and transformed downtown Boston into a closed-off crime scene.

Commuters faced increased security on the MBTA today in one of the signs of increased security in response to the detonation of two bombs, within 12 seconds of each other, at the finish line of the Marathon on Boylston Street Monday afternoon. At South Station this morning, Amtrak passengers were met by police with a bomb-sniffing dog who strolled alongside passengers. Baggage was swabbed by police and put through explosives-detecting scanner before passengers were allowed to board.

Overnight, a wave of law enforcement officials swarmed a home in Revere, looking at what the Revere Fire department described as a “person of interest,’’ but no arrests were reported this morning. The FBI, which has taken the lead in what a top official called a “potential terrorism investigation,’’ is expected to update the public at 9:30 a.m. today.

And later in the story, this addition glimpse of the behind-the-scenes activity:

No arrests have been reported this morning. According to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation, authorities are trying to determine if more than one person was involved in the attacks. ...

On Monday, a Saudi national was questioned by investigators at a Boston hospital and late Monday night descended on a high-rise apartment building in Revere and conducted a search related to the investigation. FBI and Homeland Security agents were seen entering the Water’s Edge apartment complex at 364 Ocean Ave.

So what are journalists looking for? At what point does religious information or, sadly, speculation enter the news picture?

If this early information is relevant, and this was an act of terror carried out by one or more radical Muslims, how do journalists make sure that readers understand -- yet again -- that the world of Islam is large and complex and that there is no way to somehow blame a hellish event of this kind on Islam and leave it at that? At the same time, journalists are supposed to report any information that can be shown -- with facts, on the record -- that is relevant to the actions and the motives of the individuals or the network that planned and committed the act of terrorism.

Do journalists report that millions of mainstream Muslims are appalled by the crime. Of course.

Do journalists report that some Muslims overseas rejoiced at the news? Yes, but be specific when it comes to who, what, when, where, why and how.

The goal, in other words, is to print the best information about religious links and motives that can be reported. It's journalism.

I wrote about these challenges back in 2011 when dealing with early press coverage of the alleged "Christian fundamentalist" Behring Breivik in his hellish rampage in Norway. At that time, I argued that journalists should respond to his acts in precisely the same way that they respond to acts that are alleged to be linked to Islamic radicals.

... What are journalists looking for? ... We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.

Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

In conclusion, at this early stage, let me recommend the following Poynter.org classic from media ethicist Aly Colon, which ran with the headline, “Preying Presbyterians?” It focuses on the news reports that emphasized that Paul Hill, executed in 2003 for killing an abortion doctor, was a “former Presbyterian minister.”

Colon notes that journalists failed to note what brand of Presbyterianism they were dealing with. I would also add that Hill had been thrown out of these ultra-orthodox Presbyterian bodies because of his theological justifications for violence. In other words, they decided that he was a heretic.

These words from Colon are must reading right now, as journalists look for facts, instead of labels, in Norway. Yes, I would be saying precisely the same thing if it was alleged that the suspect was tied to some form of radical Islam. ...

"When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe. We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do."

As I said at that time, "Let us attend."

The goal is to report any role that religion played in this act of terrorism, not to ignore or downplay that role, not to puff up or to exaggerate any such role. The goal, once again, is journalism, to, as I like to say, "Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you."

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