After London, a question returns: At what point does terrorist coverage just encourage more attacks?

After London, a question returns: At what point does terrorist coverage just encourage more attacks?

I listen to National Public Radio when I'm in my car and either of the network's two signature news programs -- "Morning Edition" or "All Things Considered" -- happen to be airing. That was the case one day last week when I heard a guest on ATC being interviewed about the London terrorist attack and the radicalization of homegrown Islamic terrorists.

One factor contributing to this radicalization, he said, is the saturation coverage the attacks tend to receive.

In essence, the question he posed was: Do news media inadvertently advance the terrorists' game plan by inappropriately publicizing their attacks, leading to heightened fears in the general public -- one of terrorism's clearest objectives.

It's a knotty and important question that seems to surface after every successful attack in a Western city.

Most often, the question is raised by someone put forth as an expert on terrorism attached to some think tank or university. By now, I'd wager there isn't a Western news room or journalism school that hasn't wrestled with the question.

I'd also bet that few if any of these discussions ended in general agreement on some practical way forward that's applicable to all attacks under all circumstances.

I know I lack a one-size-fits-all standard -- which doesn't mean that someone else has not come up with some broadly general standard for coverage. If any reader happens to be that person, please say so in the comment section below.

Here's the relevant part of the ATC interview I heard on last week. The interviewer is NPR's Kelly McEvers and the interviewee is Rajan Basra, a research fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation at London's King's College.

BASRA: ... But aside from trying to prevent people from becoming terrorists in the first place, we also have to accept that terrorism is just a fact of life in the West these days. And so perhaps it's better to make society more resilient to the effects of terrorism.
MCEVERS: What do you mean?

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Define 'radical Islam,' please: Is this a candidate for 'scare quote' status? Really?

Define 'radical Islam,' please: Is this a candidate for 'scare quote' status? Really?

If you have read for any time at all, you are probably familiar with the whole idea of "scare quotes."

Actually, I would assume that this piece of media jargon is now in common in just about any setting in which critics, news consumers and journalists argue about issues linked to news coverage and, especially, media bias.

So what does the term mean and what, on this day, does it have to do with discussions of "radical" forms of Islam? Wait. You see the quote marks that are framing the word "radical"?

Here is one online definition of this term:

scare quotes -- noun
quotation marks used around a word or phrase when they are not required, thereby eliciting attention or doubts.

For example, this online dictionary notes that, "putting the term 'global warming' in scare quotes serves to subtly cast doubt on the reality of such a phenomenon."

Here at GetReligion, many of our discussions of scare quotes have started using them to frame a perfectly normal term in discussions of the First Amendment -- religious liberty. Religious liberty turns into "religious liberty" whenever religious traditionalists, usually in conflicts over the Sexual Revolution, attempt to defend their free speech rights, rights of freedom of association and rights to free exercise of religious beliefs.

A GetReligion reader sent me a recent piece from The Atlantic and asked if another important term in public discourse is about to be shoved into "scare quotes" territory. The double-decker headline on that piece saith:

The Coming War on ‘Radical Islam’
How Trump’s government could change America’s approach to terrorism

You knew Trump had to be involved in this somehow, right? Here is the overture, which shows the context of the question that was raised by our reader:

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Washington Post offers a rather simple story about complex Indonesian debates on sex

Washington Post offers a rather simple story about complex Indonesian debates on sex

If you study a map of the world, it is hard to find many nations that are much more complex -- at the level of geography, culture, religion and history -- as Indonesia.

For starters, the nation's population of 250 million-plus is spread, as any travel agent will tell you, over an archipelago of 17,508 islands -- with five major islands and 6,000 others containing populated areas.

Indonesia is also the world's largest Muslim-majority (86 percent of the population) nation and it's approach to Islam is strikingly different, in many ways, than the Arab cultures of the Middle East. In many ways, Islam in Indonesia and Asia functions as a third major form of this complex faith, along with the better-known Sunni and Shia streams.

This brings us to a recent Washington Post story, offering a highly Western take on what some would consider a "culture war" conflict in Indonesia. The rather bland headline: "Indonesia’s top court weighs ban on sex outside marriage." The story, for the most part, is dominated by rather vague references to conflicts between "progressives" and "conservatives."

Also, I read this story more carefully after receiving a note from my colleague Ira "Global Wire" Rifkin noting, "Tremendous hole in this piece: what about non-Muslim Indonesians? There are many Hindus in Java, Christian Chinese, Sikhs and others living there."

Yes, let's watch for that, too. Here's the overture:

JAKARTA, Indonesia -- Indonesia’s highest court is deliberating whether sex outside marriage should be made illegal in the world’s third-largest democracy, in the latest push by conservative Islamist organizations to restructure the country’s relatively secular legal code.
If the court revises the law to forbid casual sex, gay sexual relations would become illegal for the first time in Indonesian history, and straight unmarried couples could face prosecution.

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What happened in Turkey? Look for two words -- 'secular' and 'Ataturk' -- in news reports

What happened in Turkey? Look for two words -- 'secular' and 'Ataturk' -- in news reports

So what was the attempted coup in Turkey all about? It seems pretty clear at this point that no one really knows (or they are not saying). Were experts at the White House and the U.S. state department really flying blind on this one, as appeared to have been the case?

I'm no expert on Turkish history in the 20th century, but I have been to Istanbul twice and heard the local experts explain that nation's unique standing as a "secular" Muslim state. In recent years, Turkey has been swinging in the direction of some form of Islamist regime, under the leadership of President (some would say "strongman") Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

During the modern era, the Turkish military -- with strong ties to the West -- have acted as defenders of the secular state, using blunt power to crush attempts to move toward any form of Islamist rule. Is that what happened this time? Or did some rebel group within the military actually try to take Turkey in a more radically religious direction? That would be a stunning development in a nation under pressure -- in the form of terrorism, at the very least -- from the Islamic State and its supporters.

Read the coverage. Do the experts not know the answer to this question or they are not saying?

As you read, look for two words -- "secular" and "Ataturk." How far did you have to read to hit those crucial terms?

We are, of course, talking about Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, not the airport named in his honor. Here is the opening of a History Channel biography on this giant in modern Turkish history.

Mustafa Kemal Atatürk (1881-1938) was an army officer who founded an independent Republic of Turkey out of the ruins of the Ottoman Empire. He then served as Turkey’s first president from 1923 until his death in 1938, implementing reforms that rapidly secularized and westernized the country. Under his leadership, the role of Islam in public life shrank drastically, European-style law codes came into being, the office of the sultan was abolished and new language and dress requirements were mandated. But although the country was nominally democratic, Atatürk at times stifled opposition with an authoritarian hand.

That opposition Ataturk and then his followers kept crushing?

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Gays and Islam: Even after Orlando shooting, many news media skirt the hard questions

Gays and Islam: Even after Orlando shooting, many news media skirt the hard questions

After the 9-11 terrorist attacks, I suggested a story on the verses in the Quran that dealt with killing unbelievers, including how local imams interpret them. My editor hesitated and said, "I'd rather do stories about diversity in the community."

That looks like the attitude among most mainstream media, 15 years later. We know that Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at an Orlando gay club, was Muslim and anti-gay. But what exactly does Islam say about homosexuality?

Many mainstream media seem to have been avoiding answering that, even when asking it themselves. They’ve chattered about how he checked Facebook and traded texts with his wife. They say he tried to buy body armor. And of course, they talk about gun control and homophobia.

But few have ventured into the minefield where Muslim communities border homosexuality. And of those that do, most concentrate on LGBT Muslims themselves.

In Florida itself, I could find only one newspaper -- my alma mater, the Sun Sentinel -- reporting on a "confused, broken community that lies at the intersection of the tragedy," as it calls them. One of its three subjects is college student Hytham Rashid:

There are not a lot of terms to describe gender identity or sexual orientation in Arabic, Rashid said. The word "transgender," for example, translates to "You are like a woman" or "You are like a man," which can be considered offensive, he says.  
As a gay Muslim, Rashid says he faces both Islamophobia and homophobia every day. He said in the wake of the Orlando tragedy, he doesn’t feel safe going to memorials and events.
"We can put up our stickers and wave around our rainbow flags in Wilton Manors, but the core issue is, there isn’t a safe space for us," he said.

The Sun Sentinel also imports a statement by the Muslim Alliance for Sexual and Gender Diversity that there is "no religious justification or precedent in Islam for mass shootings targeting any population, regardless of identity." But it doesn't look at the Quran or the Hadith (the record of Muhammad's words and deeds).  Nor does it ask any leaders of the 15-20 mosques in its circulation area.

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Christian lives matter: The Guardian reports Catholic murder in Bangladesh -- NY Times shrugs

Christian lives matter: The Guardian reports Catholic murder in Bangladesh -- NY Times shrugs

Bangladesh, with its new wave of atrocities over the last half-week, has gotten fresh attention -- but not necessarily balanced attention.

"Christian murdered in latest Bangladesh attack," says The Guardian of the Catholic grocer who was hacked to death outside his store.

And the New York Times reports the throat-slashing murder of a Hindu priest in Bangladesh on Tuesday.

Unfortunately, the two stories are not equally good. The Guardian ran the better one, for its sweep and for connecting religious and political facets.  

The narrative of the death of Sunil Gomes as brutally efficiently as the crime itself:

A Christian was knifed to death after Sunday prayers near a church in northwest Bangladesh in an attack claimed by Islamic State.
Police said unidentified attackers murdered the 65-year-old in the village of Bonpara, home to one of the oldest Christian communities in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. "Sunil Gomes was hacked to death at his grocery store just near a church at Bonpara village," said Shafiqul Islam, deputy police chief of Natore district.

And the paper doesn't just stop with the police-blotter facts. It interviews Father Bikash Hubert Rebeiro of the Bonpara Catholic church. He says Gomes attended Sunday prayers, used to work as a gardener at the church and was "known for his humility."

"I can’t imagine how anyone can kill such an innocent man," the priest says.

We also learn of other recent victims in Bangladesh. One was Mahmuda Begum,  stabbed and shot in the head in front of her young son -- apparently because her husband is a police commissioner who has helped track down terrorists. The others are a Hindu trader and a Buddhist monk, both killed last week. 

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Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

Trying to figure out the 'Why?' in hellish reality of the school massacre in Pakistan

All school shootings force journalists to wrestle with images from hell and the information that poured out of Peshawar, Pakistan, was tragically familiar. Here is part of the barrage from the top of a long report in The Los Angeles Times:

When it was over, 132 children and nine staff members were dead ... at an army-run school in this northeastern city in one of the deadliest terrorist attacks in Pakistan’s troubled history. Many were shot in the temple at close range. One 9-year-old told his father that a classmate’s head was nearly blown off.

Seven assailants wearing explosives-laden suicide vests fought a daylong gun battle with Pakistani soldiers and police commandos, trapping hundreds of students and teachers in the Army Public School compound where the attackers planted bombs to deter the security forces.

The story is packed with the kinds of details news consumers expect in live, dateline reports from major news scenes. If you want the "who," "what," "when," "where" and "how" of this story, you are going to find it in this Los Angeles Times report and in many similar reports in the mainstream media.

But the "why" is another matter. Many journalists seem to assume that readers already know the "why" part of the equation and leave this crucial information unstated.

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Beheading in Oklahoma: In this case, the religion ghost is right out in the open

Beheading in Oklahoma: In this case, the religion ghost is right out in the open

At the moment, it's easy to read the mainstream coverage of the beheading in Moore, Okla., and sense the tensions that journalists are feeling as they try to decide which post-9/11 news template to apply to this heartland drama.

There's the "workplace violence" template. This is used (think MSNBC) when a story has, you know, a religious angle that public officials really do not want to talk about. This template exists, in part, because -- with some justification -- officials fear that coverage of the attacker's connections to radicalized Islam will lead to unfair criticism of ordinary, mainstream Muslims. 

Then there is the "global terrorism" template. This is used (think Fox News, initially) when there is even the slightest reason to connect what could be a lone-wolf attacker to Jihadist networks at home or abroad. In this Oklahoma attack, here is what that kind of story looks like -- care of

Often, there is good cause to run with either of these templates. The key, however, is whether journalists are able to keep digging -- without prejudice -- for the basic facts that point one way or the other.

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Yes, it's crucial that Boko Haram kills and tortures Muslims

Yes, we need to focus on Nigeria and Boko (“books”) Haram (“forbidden“). Again. Why? Why keep coming back to the mainstream coverage of this story?

For starters, the scope of the story is only getting bigger with the planned — limited — intervention of the Obama White House in the efforts to find and rescue the 270-plus teen-aged girls who were abducted last month by this terrorist network. Reports about the precise number still being held as slaves and potential forced brides have varied, according to different sources that are trying to determine how many girls have or have not escaped. The vast majority of the girls are Christians, but some are Muslims.

This story has climbed out the obscure back pages dedicated to non-entertaining horrors on the other side of the world and up into the prime ink-and-video terrain noticed by the masses. I also believe that, as this has happened, mainstream journalists have been doing a somewhat better job of dealing with the religious elements of this story. We are past the stage where our most powerful newspaper can say that Boko Haram is doing mysterious things for mysterious reasons while seeking mysterious goals and that is that.

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