Your weekend think piece: Muslim readers offended by news-you-can-use info bites

 16/10/09 TODAY Picture by Tal Cohen - 
 Muslims protest outside Geert Wilders press conference in central London 16 October 2009,  Wilders who faces prosecution in the Netherlands for anti-Islam remarks pays visit to the capital.  The Freedom Party leader said 'Lord Malcolm Pearson has invited me to come to the House of Lords to discuss our future plans to show Fitna the movie.' Wilders won an appeal on October 13 against a ban, enforced in February, from entering Britain. Ministers felt his presence would threaten public safety and lead to interfaith violence. (Photo by Tal Cohen)  All Rights Reserved � Tal Cohen - T: +44 (0) 7852 485 415  
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So you are the New York Times public editor. 

You receive the following in a communication from a reader named Rachel Hall, who is responding -- in part -- to a Times online feature built on a list of violent acts carried out by self-proclaimed Islamic believers, almost always people who go out of their way to link their actions to their faith. You have also received letters from other Muslims protesting the same feature.

Hall writes:

In the article, the author has cherry-picked select cases from across North America, Europe and Australia that have no common threads except that they were planned or perpetrated by a person claiming to be a member of a Muslim community. In today’s world where we are constantly bombarded with a negative narrative about Islam, this kind of reporting only serves to demonize a faith of 1.6 billion people and fuels hate and prejudice against all Muslims who abide not only in North America but around the globe.
The people who perpetrate these acts do not represent me or my faith. They do not represent everyday Muslims, but in reading your article it would be easy to see how someone could be confused and think that all Muslims are terrorists. These extremists have hijacked my faith and yet we don’t hear this reported from news outlets such as yours. Instead, the media perpetually fuels fires of hate by not taking care to differentiate between the actions of a small band of crazy people and billions of average everyday individuals who just want to live their lives in peace.

So you are Margaret Sullivan. Looking at this as a journalism issue, how do your respond? 

In part, you note -- after talking with the appropriate editors on the international desk, Lydia Polgreen and Michael Slackman -- that this annotated list was merely a sidebar to a news report. It was never meant to be evaluated as a stand-alone effort.

It was hard not to see these events as connected in some way, even if the key connection was not the Islamic faith, but a radical form of the faith claimed by those committing the acts. Thus:

Both editors said they understand the need to be sensitive to people’s faith. And they noted that the headline, by design, referred to “extremists,” leaving the words “Muslim” and “Islamic” out. Ms. Polgreen noted that in most of the cases in the compilation, the culprits were described not as lifelong Muslims but as recent converts or extremists.
“These were unusual Muslims,” she said, and the article portrayed them as such.

Sullivan defended the article, kind of, yet also stressed that more and more readers are encountering articles of this kind in the fragmented, click-forward world of hot-URL social media. As any journalist knows, we live in an age when our old familiar information bundles have come unbundled.

But read her whole response. What think ye?

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