LONDON, July 25 (Reuters) - As Norway mourns the carnage wrought by a self-styled crusader against Islam, news media around the world face hard questions about their haste to point fingers of suspicion at Muslims.
Bloggers are taking the “mainstream media” to task on the Internet, professional journalists are trading barbs over who rushed to judgment quickest — or failed to question familiar, soundbite-friendly analysts — and Muslims, especially living in the West, are left wondering if popular mistrust will ever ease.
“Tragic day for Norway, shameful day for journalism,” was how Brown University historian Shiva Balaghi characterised the coverage at jadaliyya.com, an Arab studies website:
“In this 24/7 news cycle, driven even more mad by terror experts who conduct research using Google and tweet a mile a minute, journalists should exercise caution,” she wrote.
While online media and broadcasters gradually shifted their focus on possible attackers from Islamists to local far-right militants, newspapers, especially in Europe, were embarrassed by the story changing as they went to press on Friday evening.
Some held more firmly to the Islamist scenario than others.
“‘Al Qaeda’ Massacre: Norway’s 9/11” splashed the banner headline on Saturday in Britain’s best-selling tabloid The Sun.
Though it noted that the gunman had by then already been described as a blond man in police uniform, the paper’s brief front-page story said officials suspected “Islamist fanatics” and that the killer might be a “home-grown al Qaeda convert”.
“‘Innocent until proven guilty’ has been replaced when it comes to Muslims by ‘guilty until proven innocent’,” concluded Iraqi-born British commentator Adnan Al-Daini at www.huffingtonpost.com. “Responsible media outlets must endeavour to do better. Innocent lives may depend on it.”
Ivor Gaber, professor of political journalism at London’s City University, sees a mixture of “laziness” and “malevolence” on the part of the media — to be influenced by a “news agenda” set by past events, and also, for some, to propagate fear of an ever-changing roster of perceived threats to their readers.
“We create moral panic because the popular media thrive on fear ... of the outsider,” he said. “The popular one today is the Islamic terrorist, so that gets immediately picked up.”
If news headline writers were taken to task for lacking due caution in reporting on a situation that was far from clear — and in which Norwegian officials showed great circumspection in apportioning blame — then expert commentators and op-ed writers were also targets for heavy criticism over the weekend.
Peter Knoope, the director of the Netherlands-based International Centre for Counter-Terrorism, said journalists had reflected what specialist analysts had been saying: “Although some of the reactions in the press yesterday were cautious many reflected the Western fixation on Jihadi terrorism,” he said.
“One expert yesterday claimed that ‘the tall blond shooter was possibly a convert to Islam’. This reflects a mindset where all bad things have one possible source: Islamists.”
Among specialists taking particular heat is Will McCants, a former U.S. State Department counter-terrorism adviser now at Johns Hopkins University. He drew attention via Twitter to a posting on an Islamist web site shortly after the bombing, though he was sceptical it was a claim of responsibility.
The prominence some media gave to McCants’ comments, notably the New York Times on its website, turned him into a target for other bloggers: the Palestinian site electronicintifada.net ran a piece on him and the newspaper headlined “How a clueless ‘terrorism expert’ set media suspicion on Muslims”.
That prompted a round of commentary elsewhere from other security specialists explaining why they had been justified in initially saying that Islamists were the most likely attackers.
Critics of journalism have argued the media may have amplified that focus on the part of experts in Islamist violence by failing to seek out so actively analysts with other expertise, such as the anti-immigration far-right in Europe.
“We don’t recognise that most experts see things from a particular point of view,” said City University’s Gaber.
“In such sensitive areas, journalists have to be careful.
“They can provoke adverse reactions. One could easily imagine people of Arab origin being attacked in the streets.”
In one of the more bizarre twists, blogger Sanum Ghafoor — @Strange_Sanum — launched a satirical series of tweets about knee-jerk reactions in the media. Her #blamethemuslims tag was for a time the most active topic on Twitter — partly it seemed because many users failed to see the joke, and were outraged.
Passions have been particularly heated in the United States, where journalists on the left and right have traded acid remarks about not just the reporting of the news but commentaries on lessons that might be drawn from the bloodshed in Norway.
“The Washington Post Owes the World an Apology,” wrote James Fallows at the website of the Atlantic monthly, complaining about the blogger Jennifer Rubin, whose post was still on the newspaper’s site arguing a need to combat an Islamist threat.
“This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too expensive to wage a war against jihadists,” Rubin wrote.
“No,” Fallows responded. “This is a sobering reminder for those who think it’s too tedious to reserve judgment about horrifying events rather than instantly turning them into talking points for pre-conceived views.”
A fellow Atlantic writer, Jeffrey Goldberg, defended the instant analysis, however: “There are lessons here for everyone.
“Readers do want to real-time thinking about breaking news stories ... It is not perverse or absurd for normal people to think of al Qaeda when they hear of acts of mass terrorism.”
Even many Muslims acknowledged that their first thought on hearing of the events in Norway had been of an Islamist attack.
“When any news like this comes up, our hearts really sink. It’s not just others, it is us too, that think it may be Islam-related,” said Basharat Nazir, as spokesman for the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community in Britain, which was holding its annual gathering devoted to promoting peace this weekend.
He said that when they got word that the killer in Norway was a local who professed to be a Christian, it had come as an “overwhelming relief” to his community, which had commissioned a ComRes poll last week that showed nearly a third of Britons think the media are most to blame for promoting fear of Islam.
“The majority of the blame is that the media is highlighting all the negative aspects,” Nazir said. “Anything negative, the people start assuming that Muslims might have done it.”
While not expecting rapid change, however, he believed some good may come of the embarrassment in newsrooms round the world over the rapid assumptions some made on Friday: “I’m sure the newspapers do not want to make mistakes and wrong headlines,” he said. “They’ll think twice in future.” (Editing by Matthew Jones)