Covering the religion angle on breaking Boston news

Yes, this has been a bad week for journalism. And many people are complaining. But it’s also been a great week for journalism. I was one of those folks listening in on the Boston police scanner last night and it was so very difficult to make sense of what was going on (though it was absolutely riveting, thrilling and horrifying).

Suddenly, in the midst of all the chaos, the New York Times published an account of the shootout between suspects and police. It’s since been updated and revised significantly so I can’t point to the original story (which is a shame, since I’d love to revisit it), but it’s just a reminder of the importance of skilled reporting in a breaking situation.

Breaking situations are also when we see problems, including with how religion angles are covered. This morning on Twitter there were reports that CNN had suggested that Islamic extremists never drink. CNN also was suggesting that the suspects were “devout.” In the case of the former, that’s simply naive or ignorant. In the case of the latter, I’d sure like a lot more information before we characterize the suspects in such a manner.

Of course, from what we know now, the suspects are Muslim, American residents, and refugees from Chechnya. They also had something of a social media footprint, which could give clues about their interests. There’s a lot of complexity even in that formulation. The best thing to do is to proceed with caution about what we know. Reuters handled it this way in a piece headlined “Boston suspect’s web page venerates Islam, Chechen independence“:

Boston bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev posted links to Islamic websites and others calling for Chechen independence on what appears to be his page on a Russian language social networking site…

His “World view” is listed as “Islam” and his “Personal priority” is “career and money”.

He has posted links to videos of fighters in the Syrian civil war and to Islamic web pages with titles like “Salamworld, my religion is Islam” and “There is no God but Allah, let that ring out in our hearts”.

He also has links to pages calling for independence for Chechnya, a region of Russia that lost its bid for secession after two wars in the 1990s.

The brief article ends with something showing Tsarnaev’s sense of humor as well. Not bad for a quick piece based on limited information.

Are you seeing religion angles handled informatively and responsibly? Send us the links. Duds? Share those, too.

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  • mollie

    Report from NPR listener:

    On NPR, believe it or not: “We don’t know anything about their religious beliefs, but I’m going to ask you to comment on it anyway”

    • Kodos

      No doubt NPR is trying to ignore the egg on their face from a few days ago.

      NPR reporter Dina Temple-Raston said: “April is a big month for anti-government, right-wing folks. There’s the Columbine anniversary. There’s Hitler’s birthday. There’s the Oklahoma City bombing. There’s the assault on the Branch Davidian compound in Waco. And these are all rallying points for these kinds of extremist groups. And the FBI still compares – comparing this to the Atlanta bombing case in 1996 during the Olympics, the Eric Rudolph case, which took months to actually solve.”

      This was from an interview on (*ahem*) “All Things Considered”.

      • How is that “egg on their face”? The question was, “What else will they be considering as they try to put this together?”

        All of the events Temple-Raston listed do, in fact, have anniversaries all clustered together around April 15th. And she didn’t say that it was confirmed that the bombing at the Boston Marathon was related to those, just that “officials can’t get away from this idea of timing”, that they had to consider it a possible factor.

        Is it that no one should have brought it up as a possibility at all? If not, why not?

        • Kodos

          I think it’s egg on their face because Temple-Raston was quick to suggest that these bombings might be the work of right-wingers. No evidence, of course. Who are these “officials” she’s referring to? The FBI? The police? Who?

          Further, she mentions no other potential culprits. If she’d used these examples of April terrorism by right-wingers and *also* have mentioned the possibility that these bombings might be the result of Islamic terrorists, or maybe a leftist attack on American capitalist decadence, or possibly a “false flag” operation by the Obama administration to undermine American civil rights (I’m parroting all the conspiracy theories I was hearing after the bombings). None of these had a shred of evidence in their favor, so why mention *only* the right-wing examples?

          It doesn’t help that Temple-Raston seems to think that the Atlanta Olympic bombing was in April. Because the Atlanta bombing was actually in July, it sorta ruins the argument she wants to make that right-wingers are somehow tempted to naughty behavior in April. But never mind, it’s still the political right that might be to blame.

  • Jerry

    Of course, from what we know now, the suspects are Muslim, American residents, and refugees from Chechnya

    . I just heard interviews with their aunt and uncle that said that was not correct. The family was originally from Chechnya but was forced out by Stalin because they were accused of being Nazi sympathizers. So “refugees from Chechnya” is incorrect because it leads to a false conclusion that they left as a result of the civil war going on since the mid 1990’s. Their family came from their originally but were citizens of another country – one of the former soviet republics.

    This, plus the comment from “NPR listener” is yet more evidence that we need to move very, very carefully and slowly during times of fast breaking developments. It’s easy to jump to conclusions and find that “conclusions” is another name for a cliff. And it’s too easy for reporters to seek answers where there are none yet.

    As one NPR commentator said something like, we have a lot of dots and are getting more every minute. But we’re far from being able to connect them.

    • mollie

      I was hoping my “refugees from Chechnya” was sufficiently oblique. With the caveat that I’m just going with various news reports, I’d read the older brother was born there, the younger one wasn’t as the family had already fled, and that they came to America as refugees from the general situation.

      In general the crackdown on Chechens is because Moscow viewed them as Nazi collaborators or sympathizers, right?

      And the conflict there does not just date to the 1990s but well into the previous century, I believe.

      • Jerry

        I did not read your intent but rather read it as refugees from the 1990’s to today war. But, yes, the ethic problems go back way before Stalin’s time.

        I appreciate your appropriate caution. But I’m taking it to yet another level: I’m treating all media reports as rumors and half-truths unless they’re eyewitness accounts. And then, I’m assuming bias as in the case of the uncles and aunts being interviewed. Just like the rumors of the other day with multiple unexploded bombs and a Saudi national, it’s too easy for the media to go off track.

        So, for example, one of the uncles said that at least one of the terrorists were born in Kyrgyzstan.

        It’s very interesting that there are reports of “problems in the family” .

        • mollie

          Wise to do so, Jerry. Even on the uncle thing, it’s funny to watch media run with these intvws of uncles when one of them said he hadn’t really talked to brothers in years. But when he said that they’d never left country, there’s reason to suspect that’s definitely not true.
          Anyway, all the challenges of breaking news. We have to attribute and contextualize where possible but also show reasonable restraint.

  • SouthCoast

    Off topic, I fear, but FWIW, I have not been able to access your blog from IE for several days. No problem, however, using Firefox.

  • dalea

    Perhaps the better way of expressing the situation would be ‘ethnic Chechens who did not live in Chechnya’. Under the Societ system, people had both an ethnic identity and a region in which they lived. Many of the refugees who settled in the US did not live in their ethnic region when the USSR collapsed. Several of my neighbors are ethnic Russians who had been born and lived their whole lives in Ukraine. When the USSR collapsed they had nowhere to go in Russia and became refugees. Explaining the Soviet system would illuminate a lot about this situation.

    The news has reported that the younger brother became a US citizen last year. And the older brother had a domestic violence conviction which prevented him from becoming a citizen.

  • FW Ken

    The Branch Davidians were attacked in April by the Clinton Administration. Where are the evil right-wingers? Columbine? Disturbed teenagers are now right-wing terrorists?