The Arizona Republic

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

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.

So Ahmed’s group bought the billboards in hopes of generating positive buzz in the community and the newspaper.

Mission accomplished, at least as far as the newspaper goes.

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!

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NFL star's tragic loss: It's hard to talk about family-man Todd Heap without mentioning the obvious ...

NFL star's tragic loss: It's hard to talk about family-man Todd Heap without mentioning the obvious ...

It was hard to avoid the faith element of a story when almost everyone involved in talking about a family tragedy kept mentioning it.

However, some top-flight journalists tried really hard to keep the faith talk at a generic level when covering the tragic accident that claimed the life of the 3-year-old daughter of a former National Football League star. Tight end Todd Heap was a Pro Bowl-level performer for years with the Baltimore Ravens, but finished his career with the Arizona Cardinals -- a career move that was completely logical for reporters who understood his Mormon heritage and his faith.

I thought the best feature about this accident -- a mix of tweets, URLs, material from other news sources and reporting -- ran in The Washington Post, obviously not that far from Baltimore. Let's start there, in material near the top.

Heap, the 37-year-old former Baltimore Ravens and Arizona Cardinals tight end, accidentally drove over his 3-year-old daughter, killing her as he moved his truck in the driveway of the family’s Mesa, Ariz., home. She was pronounced dead at a Phoenix-area hospital and, although authorities are investigating, they indicated there was no sign that Heap was impaired or that what happened was anything other than a parent’s worst nightmare.
What happened to Heap, a popular player who retired in 2013, moved people in and out of sports, mostly because so many understand how easily such an accident could happen to anyone. Social media reactions often carried emoji of broken hearts and hands folded in prayer. The Ravens may have put the magnitude of what happened best, calling the accident “knee-buckling news” for Heap, his wife, Ashley, and their other four children in a statement.

In quote after quote, players and friends make it clear that faith was and is a key element of the Heap family story. This angle was simply impossible to avoid.

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