How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

Billboards with religious messages tend to draw tons of news media interest.

Last year, a Satanic Temple billboard protesting corporal punishment (“Our religion doesn’t believe in hitting children,” it said) rankled a South Texas town, as I reported for Religion News Service.

Other headline-making billboards have insulted Muhammad, promoted a traditional view of marriage and characterized the story of Jesus’ birth as a fairy tale.

Now, “Jesus in Islam” billboards put up in the Phoenix area are in the news.

Here is the lede from the Arizona Republic:

What do Muslims think of Jesus? It's a question Dr. Sabeel Ahmed said he gets often.

To help educate people on the significance of Jesus in Islam, Ahmed's group, The Humanitarians, a Muslim interfaith organization, is launching a monthlong campaign that includes billboards along high-trafficked areas in Arizona along with radio ads.

Ahmed, the group's founder and outreach coordinator, said the intent is to highlight similarities between Islam and Christianity and bring people together during the holidays. 

"We want to educate people on who we (Muslims) are and who we are not and show people that there are more similarities between the faiths than differences," Ahmed said Tuesday during a news conference at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.

Keep reading, and you’ll discover that this story is the epitome of a puff piece: Group holds news conference. Reporter writes glowingly about it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

To be clear, I’m not suggesting that this story requires adversarial treatment of the main source. I’m not saying that at all. I’m pleased the Republic covered the news conference and fairly and accurately quoted what Ahmed said.

But single-source stories (or almost single-source stories) end up reading more like a press release from the organization than an actual exercise in journalistic reporting.

How might the Republic have turned this puff piece into actual, worthwhile journalism? Actually picking up the telephone and calling a few additional sources would have been a nice start.

Technically, the paper did quote one source other than Ahmed:

The Rev. Larry Fultz, director of the Arizona Interfaith Movement, said while he was not aware of the campaign, it’s a message he supports.

He said especially during such politically divisive times, celebrating the similarities between different groups is important. 

“Anything that any group is doing to encourage dialogue, I’m for it. That’s our mission, to find things we have in common,” he said.

But Fultz’s inclusion does nothing to diminish the puff piece feel.

What other sources might have helped?

• I’d love to hear from both Islamic and Christian scholars on the differences in what Muslims and Christians believe concerning Jesus.

• I’d love to hear from Christian leaders in the Phoenix area about their response to the billboards. (All the responses might not be positive.)

• I’d love some analysis on why this group might be pushing this message now. What is the back story?

• I’d love some poll data on how Christians view Muslims in America and vice versa.

Bottom line: Dig deeper.

The billboards are a definite peg for a story. The group’s message is a crucial part of that story. But don’t stop there.

I’m not saying a reporter has to contact every source I’ve mentioned above, but the final product should reflect some level of enterprise and skepticism. Take the group’s message and use it as a peg to see if there’s a more compelling — and more complex — story to be told.

My bet is that there is.

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