'Buuuuuuut is it true?' Readers question reporting on billboard that has outraged Muslims

In Indianapolis, a billboard that insults Muhammad — the chief prophet and central figure of the Islamic religion -- has upset local Muslims.

Those concerns made their way first to the Indianapolis Star and then to USA Today, Gannett's flagship national newspaper.

Try to spot the basic journalism question here. We are talking Reporting 101.

From USA Today:

INDIANAPOLIS — An anti-Muslim billboard disparaging the prophet Mohammed that can be seen from an Indiana highway on the east side of Indianapolis is drawing concern from local Muslims.
Now, Islamic leaders in Indianapolis are challenging those responsible for what they say are offensive and untrue statements to stand by their words, shed their anonymity and explain their motivations.
"It is a horrible billboard. I'm outraged by it, but saddened at the same time ...  and I would like to know who is behind it," said Rima Shahid, executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana. "It seems very cowardly to me. If you have some kind of stance, you should want to stand up next to your statement. I didn't think there was any room for hate in our city. This billboard tells me otherwise.

While the faithful's outrage seems understandable, the quality -- or lack thereof -- of the reporting behind the news coverage itself has raised questions.

"'Buuuuuuut is it true?" was the subject line on one email received by GetReligion. In other words, are any of the statements on the billboard accurate or even topics scholars have debated in the past?

The writer said:

Being from Indy, I occasionally check in on my old city. Today I discovered this article
Now, I obviously don't think this is a productive way to start a discussion, so I'm not defending the billboard. But is it not worth even asking if the accusations in this billboard are, you know, true? I get the "people are offended by this" angle, but shouldn't a journalist seek to discover, to what extent, that offense is justified?

Another GetReligion reader -- in a Facebook message -- passed along the link to the USA Today version of the story. That reader suggested that the report could be good fodder for a critique on this journalism-focused website:

Is the story written in a fair/balanced manner? Why are the only voices in the story opposed to the billboard? Obviously those interviewed are opposed to the message of the billboard, but no sources are cited that would allow the reader to determine if the billboard is accurate or not.
And, would a similar billboard about Jesus get national coverage and outrage?

Both readers ask excellent questions that are totally appropriate for GetReligion analysis.

Before I respond, it might help if I backed up and shared a bit more background from USA Today:

The all black billboard has a headline of "The Perfect Man." Underneath are six bullet points to describe that man. These points include "married a 6-year-old," "slave owner & dealer" and "13 wives, 11 at one time."
At the bottom of the billboard in yellow sits the words "Educate Truthophobes." A search of Truthophobes online leads to multiple anti-Muslim groups, specifically an Australian group with similar messaging.

But — as the readers pointed out — the Gannett papers fail to engage the question of whether the claims made about Muhammad have any basis in historical fact. 

I asked a Christian scholar who is a former Muslim about the billboard. Here's what he told me in a text message:

1. The Quran never claims that Muhammad was a perfect man. In fact, it says that Muhammad was a sinner (48:2).
2. Aisha was, according to most Islamic resources, 9 and not 6 when Muhammad married her. Of course, that doesn't make the account any less disturbing, but why was the number changed into 6 compromises the billboard's credibility. 
3. Muhammad wasn't a rapist.
4. All the rest are true according to most Islamic sources.
My work is usually about questioning Muhammad's inspiration, not character. This billboard doesn't have a spiritual value to it, but, as you know, is an obvious anti-Muslim statement, considering that every point in it is mentioned specifically to raise certain feelings toward the Muslim people. Anti-Semitism was politically correct in the Western world for a long time. Slavery was a common practice in this nation, and yet the billboard deceptively claims that these two practices are specific to Islam.
The Christian calling is to defend the faith and to pursue the salvation of the Muslim souls, and this billboard is about neither. It does succeed, though, in raising anti-American, anti-Christian feelings among Muslims, and in depicting Christians as haters and deceitful.

My point is not to take what the Christian scholar told me as the gospel truth, nor is it to suggest that reporters must quote a Christian scholar. No, if you want, call a Muslim imam or an atheist theologian, or a mainstream scholar who knows Islamic texts inside out, go for it. 

But talk to somebody who has studied the history. Provide real context for readers. If two or more scholars disagree on the facts, that makes for an even better story, right?

Bottom line: If the billboard is news, then reporters need to dig a little deeper. They need to delve beyond predictable "Muslims outraged" quotes (as essential as those voices are to the story).

Yes, I get that even the questions themselves may be offensive to some. But journalists' job is not to make friends. It's to ask -- and attempt to answer -- the obvious questions.

Real journalism requires real reporting.

Editor's note: The Associated Press Stylebook, which GetReligion attempts to follow, uses the "Muhammad" spelling. USA Today may follow a different style.

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