Journalism: When does a gunman become a terrorist?

Context, please

Hours after a gunman killed 13 and wounded 30 at a U.S. Army base in Fort Hood, Texas on Thursday, reporters and news anchors were still piecing together information about what appeared to be a mass murder. But as journalists got word of the identity of the suspected shooter, Army Maj. Nidal Malik Hasan, terrorism became a topic of discussion.

With little more confirmed than the suspect’s name and Muslim faith, broadcasters and reporters explained that it was not clear whether the event was an act of terrorism. As more details emerged, journalists confirmed that there were stronger links between Hasan’s faith and his alleged violent acts, with several eyewitnesses reporting he shouted “Allahu Akbar” before opening fire. Others who knew Hasan claimed he had belligerently preached about his faith and had opposed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Do Hasan’s alleged religious proclamation, supposedly fervent beliefs and subsequent acts of violence validate discussion of terrorism? And when do journalists decide that an act of violence qualifies as terrorism?

To be fair, most reporters did not refer to Hasan’s suspected actions as outright terrorism, although many did state that authorities had not ruled it out as a possibility. But if terrorism, as described by Merriam-Webster, is “the systematic use of terror especially as a means of coercion,” then don’t we have to know what Hasan was trying to accomplish before we can justify using the term? More importantly, would terrorism have entered the discussion if Hasan were not Muslim?

The importance of that question became apparent a day later, when a gunman named Jason Rodriguez opened fire at the Orlando offices of his former employer. Speculation about whether the event was an act of terrorism was not prominent in media reports.

But with news of Hasan’s background just hours old, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly did not oppose the characterizations of his guest, retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters, who declared, “This was an Islamist terrorist act.”

This came after the network’s Shepard Smith, having heard only Hasan’s name, had this exchange with Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R, Texas):

Smith: We’ve been given a name, as well, and, quite frankly, I’m not comfortable going with it ’til it’s given to me by the United States military, and they say, ‘This is who it is.’ Unless we get it separately. But the name tells us a lot, does it not, Senator?

Hutchison: It does, Shepard. And that’s why it’s a very sad situation.

The following morning, National Public Radio reporter Daniel Zwerdling explained that Hasan’s former colleagues at Walter Reed Army Medical Center would meet in the hallway and wonder, “Do you think he’s a terrorist, or is he just weird?”

Other descriptions of the incident alluded to Hasan’s faith as a possible motivation for the shooting, even though authorities had not zeroed in on it.

Since 9/11, virtually all of the acts of violence that American media describe as terrorism are committed by Muslims with extremist beliefs. Does that mean that all acts of violence by Muslims should be treated as possible terrorist acts, regardless of whether a religious belief has inspired them?

Coverage of the Fort Hood shooting illustrates a growing willingness among members of the news media to connect violent Muslims, regardless of their crimes or motivations, to terrorism. One means of addressing this problem might be to improve journalistic standards related to descriptions of terrorism or terrorists. The widely cited Associated Press Stylebook currently has no guidelines on the subject. And while the Society of Professional Journalists has guidelines on coverage of wars and terrorism, they do not include significant discussion about what should be described as terrorism or who qualifies as a terrorist.

The urgency of this need for professional clarity and precision is apparent in a potentially inflammatory reference from the New York Times. According to Times reporter Michael Moss, members of Major Hasan’s religious community said Hasan felt “increasingly let down by the military and deeply conflicted by his religion.” Moss includes a quotation from Duane Reasoner Jr., whom Moss describes as “an 18-year-old substitute teacher whose parents worked at Fort Hood.”

“He said he should quit the Army,” Reasoner said. “In the Koran, you’re not supposed to have alliances with Jews or Christian or others, and if you are killed in the military fighting against Muslims, you will go to hell.”

While the Qur’an includes at least one verse that can be translated in this way, it was not clear why the Times included the reference without adding context or explanation, either in the form of narrative elaboration or from additional sources. Many Americans already have questions about the teachings of Islam and its perceived propensity to influence violent extremism. The Fort Hood incident, combined with widespread descriptions of Hasan as a “devout Muslim” have likely not helped to change that perception. Journalists should know that presenting a single source as an authoritative voice for an entire faith guarantees a slanted understanding of religious belief.

Times writer Michael Moss, reached by email, said he included the quotation from Reasoner as an explanation for why Hasan wanted out of the Army. In hindsight, Moss said, he found nothing wrong with his approach and would include the reference again.

“In this case, on a fairly tight deadline, I didn’t think about adding a line saying some scholars have a different interpretation of the Koran,” Moss said. “But now as I think about it, I’m still thinking it was not necessary, and that our readers know that the Koran, as the Bible and other religious books, is open to varied interpretation.”

Perhaps. But saying as much in the article would have ensured that the writer and his readers were all on the same page.

An unqualified quotation from a source like Reasoner could further damage Americans’ already fragile perceptions about Islam said Jihad Turk, religious director of the Islamic Center of Southern California.

“To quote a person’s citing such an inflammatory verse without further context is irresponsible and doesn’t live up to the standards of good journalism,” Turk said.

Scriptural references, when taken out of the widely varying religious contexts in which they’re understood, can leave readers with a narrow and potentially misleading understanding of a faith. The same is true for acts of violence that we often too easily describe as terrorism. When journalists are reporting on an evangelicals’ beliefs about the Bible and homosexuality or a Muslim’s beliefs about military service and the Qur’an, context isn’t irrelevant. It’s everything.

Zain Shauk is a Los Angeles-based journalist and a graduate of the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. This article was previously published in The Scoop at the website for the Annenberg School’s Knight Chair in Media and Religion and is reprinted here by permission.


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