What a difference a night makes.
In America, news consumers -- as the clock ticked past midnight on the East Coast -- read story after story about generic terrorist attacks on Paris. Almost all references to eyewitnesses accounts of the words of the terrorists, or those of the social-media armies that celebrated their acts, were missing or were buried.
Coverage was radically different in British and European papers, in which terrorists shouts of "Allahu Akbar (God is great)" and references to Syria -- reported immediately by survivors and witnesses -- went straight to the tops of stories in a wide variety of media.
As I see it, there are two ways to look at the journalism questions here.
First, it is certainly good to be cautious in accepting claims of responsibility in the wake of hellish acts of these kinds and the reporting this morning is making it clear that early ISIS messages about Paris were hard to verify. However, is it now editorial policy, in America newsrooms, to downplay or ignore information from eyewitnesses at these events?
Second, some journalists would say that the goal (a worthy one) in early news coverage is to avoid pouring insult and injury on non-radicalized Muslims, believers in a global faith who utterly reject the actions of the Islamic State. However, there is another way to interpret the results of this policy -- which is that news consumers no longer need to be told when there is early evidence that terrorists claim they are acting in the name of Islam.
The bottom line: Is the assumption that American news consumers can automatically assume they are reading about terror linked to radicalized Islam and, thus, do not need to be given relevant information available in news media elsewhere in the world? What is the journalism logic for this?
But, like I said, reports online this morning are completely different. Apparently, the public statements of French President Francois Hollande -- as opposed to French eyewitnesses -- changed everything. Here is the top of a current Associate Press report:
PARIS (AP) -- The assailants' weapons were those of war: automatic rifles and suicide belts of explosives. The killing was indiscriminate, spread across a swath of the city, in at least six different sites. An ordinary Friday night in Paris transformed into a bloodbath. The word Parisians used over and over as they tried to make sense of the horror was "carnage."
At the packed Bataclan concert hall in eastern Paris, the attackers opened fire on a crowd waiting to hear American rock band Eagles of Death Metal perform. One witness told France Info radio he heard them yell "Allahu Akbar" -- God is great in Arabic -- as they started their killing spree and took hostages. The city's police chief, Michel Cadot, said the assailants also wore explosive belts, which they detonated.
This morning's New York Times package of stories includes this highly detailed look at the language of those claiming responsibility:
SINONE, Iraq -- The Islamic State claimed responsibility on Saturday for the catastrophic attacks in the French capital, calling them “the first of the storm” and mocking France as a “capital of prostitution and obscenity,” according to statements released in multiple languages on one of the terror group’s encrypted messaging accounts.
The remarks came in a communiqué published in Arabic, English and French on the Islamic State’s Telegram account and then distributed via their supporters on Twitter, according to a transcript provided by the SITE Intelligence Group, which tracks jihadist propaganda.
An earlier statement was released but was deemed unlikely to be authentic because of anomalies in the language used, as well as an error in a date provided, according to experts on jihadist propaganda.
The statement was released on the same Telegram channel that was used to claim responsibility for the crash of a Russian jet over the Sinai Peninsula two weeks ago, killing 224 people. As in that case, it made the announcement in multiple languages and audio recordings.
I thought the following passage was especially strong, noting the divisions in tactics and, I would think theology, that have opened up on the radical edges of Islam -- as in ISIS and Al Qaeda. A crucial fact in the early rise of Al Qaeda was a theological justification for the killing of moderate, non-radicalized Muslims and even civilians.
Now, the Times notes the following:
The style of the attack was in line with the Islamic State’s tactic of indiscriminate killings and goes against Al Qaeda’s guidelines. In a 2013 directive, the leader of Al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahri, stated that Qaeda operatives should avoid attacks that could inadvertently cause the death of Muslim civilians and noncombatant women or children. He argued that targeting markets, for example, was unadvisable because innocent Muslims might accidentally be killed.
Although Qaeda branches have deviated from these guidelines on numerous occasions, their attacks reflect more carefully defined targeting, as was the case in the killings at the Charlie Hebdo office in Paris in January, when cartoonists were singled out and defined as legitimate targets because of what the group considered to be blasphemy against the Prophet Muhammad.
A Dutch fighter for Al Qaeda’s branch in Syria commented on the distinction in aseries of posts on Twitter.
“Al-Qaeda focuses mostly on political & military targets instead of civilians. That’s why this could be an IS attack,” wrote the fighter, who goes by the nom de guerre Abu Saeed Al-Halabi.
Once again let me stress: I am not opposing caution in reporting these kinds of complex, frenzied, hellish stories. I am wondering about the logic (a) of newsroom leaders avoiding the testimony of ordinary eyewitnesses, as opposed to government leaders, and (b) what appears to be the assumption that readers can assume that "terrorists" are radical Muslims, without being given information to justify that. Might this actually be seen as an affront to Islam?
Please let us know if you see mainstream news reports -- anywhere in the world -- that you believe do a really good, or really bad, job of dealing with the religious elements of this story.