Whenever there is an act of international terrorism, I get emails wanting to know why elite newsrooms are hesitant to connect the dots and use the word "Islam" in the initial coverage.
Well, there have been cases in which reporters have worked their way around some rather obvious, and easy to report, clues that point in that direction -- such as words shouted by the attackers, as reported by eyewitnesses. Often, journalists bury the name of the suspect it is points toward the Middle East or another majority-Islamic culture.
However, there are also cases in which these kinds of clear, on-the-record references are not initially available. At that point, you have public officials saying that they are treating the crime as an act of "international terrorism," and everyone is supposed to know what that means. You can see an example of this in the overture of an early New York Times report about the attack at Westminster Bridge.
LONDON -- A knife-wielding assailant driving a sport utility vehicle mowed down panicked pedestrians and stabbed a police officer outside Parliament on Wednesday in a deadly assault, prompting the hasty evacuation of the prime minister and punctuating the threat of terrorism in Europe.
At least four people, including the assailant, were killed and at least 40 others injured in the confusing swirl of violence, which the police said they assumed had been “inspired by international terrorism.” It appeared to be the most serious such assault in London since the deadly subway bombings more than a decade ago.
This does raise a question: Does the Associated Press Stylebook now include a reference stating that "international terrorism" is officially a reference to radicalized forms of Islam?
Of course not. It is also important that reporters not rush ahead of the facts -- even as ISIS leaders send out their social-media taunts. The bottom line for journalists: Don't hide the early evidence, but don't make assumptions, either.
It's crucial to keep reading, day after day, as journalists (and security officials) do their work. You can see this in the solid Times follow-up on that hellish attack, a lengthy feature that attempts to trace the attacker's journey into radical Islam. It's clear that officials are looking for ties to other groups, but are also being cautious.
The overture is sadly predictable. In this case, that is not a complaint:
BIRMINGHAM, England -- He described himself as “friendly and approachable.” He had a degree in economics, and said he was a good listener.
Adrian Russell Ajao, the man who drove a car into pedestrians in the shadow of Big Ben and then killed a police officer with a knife in Britain’s worst act of terrorism since 2005, and who called himself Khalid Masood after converting to Islam in his late 30s, was a 52-year-old husband and father.
Prone to violent outbursts as a younger man, he had led a quiet life in recent years, usually attracting notice from the neighbors only when he washed his car in the driveway or mowed his lawn. Most afternoons he would pick up his two youngest children from primary school in a quiet suburban part of Birmingham, in the West Midlands of England.
Occasionally, though, a darker side broke through. “When he spoke about religion,” said a neighbor who did not want to be identified for fear of reprisals, “he suddenly was a different man." ...
Along the way, lots of familiar clues emerge. Masood spent two years in Saudi Arabia. He had been in jail twice. He was older than most terrorists, but he had a history of violent rage earlier in his adult life. In one way, he was linked to a disturbing trend in Britain -- he was a convert to Islam who for some reason turned to violence.
I appreciated the detail in this reference, pointing to a smartphone app known for its privacy and encryption protocols.
Only minutes before Mr. Masood pressed down on the accelerator at 2:41 p.m. on Wednesday as he mounted the sidewalk on Westminster Bridge, his WhatsApp account on his phone was active, security officials said. Whether he was receiving direction from someone at home or overseas, or just saying goodbye to his wife, is not yet known.
Readers can see the kinds of detail that reporters dig out once they have a name and enough time to dig into public records and to find people who knew the attacker.
I thought that this passage was especially effective. It begins with details from ordinary life, then probes deeper into a disturbing past:
In the Birmingham neighborhood where Mr. Masood lived with his family until last December, Marjoli Gajecka, 26, described a quiet and outwardly observant Muslim who wore a beard, a skullcap and mostly cream-colored Islamic robes. His wife, also in a robe, and his two daughters wore head scarves.
“He was a very calm person, a family person, I think a good father as he was taking kids to school, bringing them back, coming back from shopping with his wife,” said Ms. Gajecka, whose mother lives two doors down from the Masoods’ former home. ...
Investigators are working on the assumption that Mr. Masood converted to Islam in one of Britain’s prisons, some of them known as incubators of radical Islam, particularly during the years he was incarcerated. He first landed in prison in 2000, after a judge sentenced him, then 35 and known as Adrian Elms, to nearly three years for slashing a cafe owner’s face after an argument.
At the time, Mr. Masood, who is mixed race, was living in Northiam, a village in southeast England. He was known to take a drink, and displayed no outward signs of piety. He left his victim, Piers Mott, with a three-inch gash on his left cheek that required 20 stitches. News reports during the trial at Hove Crown Court said the argument between the two men was racially tinged.
So what's the big idea here?
Reporting takes time and readers need to understand that. In this case, I didn't see material in other early media reports that pros at the Times and other top newsrooms went out of their way to avoid. If I am wrong about that, please let me know.
But I am sincere in asking this question: Do Muslim readers think this "international terrorism" (hint, hint) code language is less offensive than reporters noting that investigators are probing links to organizations that preach twisted, radical forms of Islam?