Media report a spike in anti-Muslim crime since San Bernardino — where's the hard data?

If you follow the news, you've probably seen a headline or two — or 50 — proclaiming that anti-Muslim crime has spiked since the San Bernardino massacre. Similar reports followed the Paris attacks.

Just a few of the major news organizations running with this storyline:

The narrative of a backlash against Muslims makes sense, of course, given the Islamic extremist ties to last week's California massacre and Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump's strong rhetoric.

But from a journalistic perspective, where is the hard data? 

As #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches trended on Twitter back in July, we urged caution in the reporting:

A half-dozen church fires in such a short period sounds like a lot. But is it really? Journalists must be sure to put the fires — and the number of them — in context.

A similar dose of discretion would seem appropriate in the case of anti-Muslim incidents.

Instead, many journalists seem to be quite comfortable equating anecdotal evidence with a solid trend.

Take the Los Angeles Times, for instance:

Attacks on mosques appear to have become more frequent and threats against Muslims more menacing since the terrorist attacks in Paris and the shooting in San Bernardino.
“A pigs head at a mosque in Philadelphia, a girl harassed at a school in New York, hate mail sent to a New Jersey mosque … I can’t event count the amount of hate mail and threats we have received,” said Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Granted, that "appear to become more frequent" hedging in the lede is much squishier than the Times' "attacks on Muslims are rising" headline.

But then the newspaper proceeds to bullet-point 15 incidents from across the nation since Nov. 14. How many such cases were there in the same time frame last year? What numerical data confirm the advocacy organization's claims of rising attacks and threats?

The Times makes no effort to put the scattered incidents into a larger context. Using this formula, a newspaper surely could confirm all kinds of trends, from a rising number of teenagers toilet-papering neighbors' trees to a spate of dogs biting postal carriers. 

Give The Associated Press credit for at least asking for official stats:

NEW YORK | A severed pig's head was left outside a mosque in Philadelphia. An Islamic center in Florida was defaced. A Sikh temple in California was vandalized by someone who mistook it for a mosque and left graffiti that included a profane reference to the Islamic State group.
Advocacy groups believe there has been a spike in anti-Muslim incidents across the United States in recent weeks that can be linked to last week's mass shooting in California and the inflammatory rhetoric of Donald Trump and other Republican presidential candidates. And they say that Muslims are fearful the backlash could lead to further harassment and violence.
"The spike began with the Paris attacks and has intensified with what happened in San Bernardino and now with what Donald Trump is proposing," Ibrahim Hooper, lead spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said Wednesday. "I have never seen such fear and apprehension in the Muslim community, even after 9/11."
The FBI, which keeps statistics on hate crimes committed nationwide, said data about 2015 will not be available until next year. But the Anti-Defamation League said it has tracked more than three dozen incidents since the Nov. 13 terror attacks in Paris that left 130 dead.

Here's wishing more news organizations would do what Mother Jones did following the Paris attacks and give readers a clearer idea of the big picture:

Based on the latest FBI hate crime figures, these incidents are on the rise. The most recent FBI data, released last Monday, indicates that hate crimes based on race, ethnicity, religious beliefs, or sexual orientation have dropped across the board—with the exception of crimes against Muslim Americans. In 2014, even as the total number of hate crimes dipped nearly 8 percent from the year before, anti-Muslim hate crimes rose 14 percent. 
While anti-Muslim incidents have risen, they trail behind incidents targeting Jewish Americans. Last year, 609 hate crime incidents were reported against Jews, the highest number of crimes based on religious beliefs—and four times the number of anti-Muslim crimes. As Christopher Ingraham at the Washington Post points out, these figures are likely undercounted, since police departments' participation in the FBI's crime assessment is voluntary and some departments track figures better than others.

In journalism, context makes all the difference.

Don't just tell me anti-Muslim attacks are on the rise. Show me the hard data.

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