It's past time for New York Times to correct report that beheaded American converted to Islam

"Is it a fact?"

That was the simple question GetReligion asked back in October after The New York Times reported that Islamic State beheading victim James Foley — an avowed Catholic — made a "sincere" conversion to Islam before his death.

Four months later, we revisited the issue when the Times produced an in-depth piece seriously exploring Foley's faith and asking many of the questions that its first story failed to acknowledge. We noted that the second piece linked to GetReligion's post questioning the original report:

Now, the Times is facing more heat for its handling of Foley's faith — this time from the victim's brother. The newspaper's public editor, Margaret Sullivan, addresses the issue in her Sunday column:

Sullivan writes:

I was drawn into this subject when I received a letter in February from Michael Foley, the younger brother of James Foley, an American journalist in Syria kidnapped in 2012. Last summer, he was the first of the Americans held hostage by ISIS to be murdered, his beheading recorded in a horrific video seen worldwide.
Michael Foley contends that Times articles portrayed his brother inaccurately — particularly when they depicted him as an enthusiastic convert to Islam and as someone who had been repeatedly waterboarded and routinely beaten. He also takes issue with the description of American and British hostages being singled out for extra abuse. Those things aren’t true, he says, and The Times should correct the record.
Michael Foley said that his own inquiry, which included his speaking to former ISIS hostages, had found that his brother, a Catholic, did not truly convert but acted under pressure from his captors; and also that he had been waterboarded only once and not singled out for excessive abuse.

Later in the column, Sullivan notes:

After editors heard Mr. Foley’s complaint, The Times did a deeper dive into the question of religious conversions. A resulting story, by Jim Yardley, was not intended as a corrective, [international editor Joseph] Kahn said, but as an amplification of the intriguing topic of religious conversions of Western hostages. Mr. Foley told me Mr. Yardley’s piece did not satisfy him.
“It didn’t get to the heart of my issue, which is that the original reporting wasn’t accurate,” he told me.

Concerning James Foley's reported conversion, the public editor concludes:

To some extent in articles like this, uncontested truth is bound to be elusive. Did a hostage in fear for his life make a genuine religious conversion or was he simply under duress? And was he singled out for unusually cruel treatment? It’s impossible to know. Given that, the stories’ pervasive tone of certainty — reporting, for example, that Mr. Foley was “captivated by Islam” — may have been unwarranted.

May have been unwarranted?

As a faithful GetReligion reader who emailed us put it, "If it's impossible to know, then there's no may have been about it."

Michael Foley is right: It's past time for the Times to issue a formal correction on its original report.

Please respect our Commenting Policy