So what is the lede here? The bloody attacks on the headquarters of the Charlie Hebdo magazine certainly deserve careful coverage, including the religion angles that simply cannot be denied.
Journalists are, with good cause, being careful about references to Islam. However, at what point does caution prevent editors from publishing basic facts?
After viewing a few of the early videos, linked to translations and comments from eyewitnesses, I typed up a few basics. From the very start it was clear that gunmen shouting "Allahu Akbar!" ran into the offices of a magazine known for publishing cartoon images of Muhammad and even material satirizing what the future France would be like under Sharia law. In one video the gunmen shout: "We have avenged the prophet."
The mid-morning Associated Press story jumps into the basic facts pretty quickly:
PARIS (AP) -- Masked gunmen shouting "Allahu akbar!" stormed the Paris offices of a satirical newspaper Wednesday, killing 12 people, including the paper's editor, before escaping in a getaway car. It was France's deadliest terror attack in living memory.
French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve said security forces were hunting for three gunmen after the noon-time attack on the weekly, whose caricatures of the Prophet Muhammed have frequently drawn condemnation from Muslims. Twelve people died and eight were wounded, including four critically, officials said.
French President Francois Hollande called the slayings "a terrorist attack without a doubt" and said several other attacks have been thwarted in France "in recent weeks."
Contrast that with the top of the New York Times story from only an hour earlier. I cannot link to this report, since it has now been taken down (and replaced with this report located at the same URL). However, let's walk our way through the top of this extremely cautious early story, starting with the mysterious, generic attackers:
PARIS -- Masked gunmen with automatic weapons opened fire in the offices of a French satirical newspaper on Wednesday in Paris, the police said, killing 12 people and then escaping in a car.
So we have mysterious, generic gunmen killing 12 people -- perhaps editors and cartoonists, maybe -- working in a newsroom that is known for publishing generic satire.
President François Hollande said the attack on the weekly, Charlie Hebdo, was “without a doubt” an act of terrorism and raised the nationwide terror alert to its highest status. He said that several terrorist attacks had been thwarted in recent weeks.
The gunmen were still at large hours after the shooting. The French authorities added additional security at houses of worship, news media offices and transportation centers.
At this point, we still have zero information about the details of this attack, although it is clear that it is terrorism. In light of the mysterious nature of the attacks, why were "houses of worship" immediately provided with extra security? Where there any facts that could have been included? Any particular faiths?
Finally, 10 paragraphs into the story, editors included factual material linked to religion:
In 2011, the office of the weekly was badly damaged by a firebomb after it published a spoof issue “guest edited” by the Prophet Muhammad to salute the victory of an Islamist party in Tunisian elections. It had announced plans to publish a special issue renamed “Charia Hebdo,” a play on the word in French for Shariah law.
A lawyer for the newspaper said that a number of prominent editors and cartoonists had been killed on Wednesday, including the cartoonists Stéphane Charbonnier, known as “Charb,” and Jean Cabut, who signs his work “Cabu.” He said that the cartoonists Georges Wolinski and Bernard Verlhac were also among the victims. ...
One journalist at the scene, who asked that her name not be used, texted a friend after the shooting: “I’m alive. There is death all around me. Yes, I am there. The jihadists spared me.”
Now, I stress that the Times has now updated this story and the new second paragraph includes a few crucial facts:
Among the dead were four prominent cartoonists who have repeatedly lampooned Islamic terrorists and the prophet Muhammad, leading to speculation that the attack was the work of Islamic militants acting alone or in concert with extremist groups.
Once again, however, the editors of the world's most influential newspaper elected to put material linked to the attackers themselves -- such as shouts heard on videos -- way down in the report.
What is the issue here? The crucial question appears to be this: Can journalists quote material from videos of the attack itself and quotations from eyewitnesses? Under ordinary circumstances, the answer is clearly "yes." In this case, the Times is being extra, extra, extra careful.
In a sidebar looking at social media reactions to the attack, Times editors stated:
What We Know
*Twelve people were killed
* Three gunmen were said to be involved
* They escaped by car and remained at large
* French officials raised the national terror alert to its highest level
What We Don’t Know
* The identities of the individuals or groups responsible for the attack
* All of the victims’ identities, said to include police officers, editors and cartoonists
* The reason Charlie Hebdo was targeted, though its provocative fare has angered groups in the past
We don't know the names of some of the victims? We don't know what the gunmen themselves shouted as they entered the building? There were no eyewitness reports of what the attackers said about their motivations?
Let's look at one or two more examples of what was published, early, in major publications. The Wall Street Journal, for example, jumped into this hellish story with an approach that was cautious, yet not afraid of using basic facts early:
PARIS -- Masked gunmen stormed the offices of the French satirical weekly Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday, killing 12 people and injuring several others in an apparent reprisal for the magazine’s cartoons regarding Islam.
Authorities said three men opened fire inside the magazine’s offices in eastern Paris using automatic AK-47 rifles before fleeing in a black car. Several staff members were shot in the midst of an editorial meeting, they said.
It is unclear whether the gunmen acted alone or were part of an organization, but they appeared to have planned the attack in advance and to have been motivated by radical Islamist beliefs.
And at The Washington Post the shouts on video did make it into the top paragraphs of an early story:
PARIS -- Masked gunmen opened fire Wednesday in the offices of a French satirical newspaper known for provocative content on Islam, killing at least 12 people and then escaping after carrying out the country’s bloodiest terrorist attack in decades.
France immediately was put on its highest security alert amid a massive manhunt for the three suspected assailants who stormed the newspaperCharlie Hebdo — where the Arabic cry of “Allahu Akbar” could be heard amid the gunfire, according to video posted by France’s state-run broadcaster. ...
Among the dead was the newspaper’s well-known editor, Stephane Charbonnier, the broadcaster France 24 reported.
Again let me state my basic point: I understand that the religion angle of this story is inflammatory, if not dangerous. I understand caution about pinning labels on the attackers. However, it is interesting to watch editors try to wrestle with the kinds of material that emerges early, in this age of social media and omnipresent smartphones.
Help us follow this story as the day goes on, especially in the foreign press.