Let us attend: Waiting for a religion shoe to drop in Boston

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As you would expect, people were a bit tense last night on my commuter train from Union Station in Washington, D.C., back to Baltimore. If anyone was talking, they were talking about the Boston Marathon explosions and the other unexploded bombs found in that tense area.

Of course, police were everywhere near the U.S. Capitol. That was to be expected. And there was another element of the scene that was to be expected. I didn’t hear anyone express the slightest doubt that they believed this would be shown to have been the work of a terrorist or terrorist with some kind of link to radical Islam.

That’s the world that we live in, of course. That’s the world journalists have to work in, as well. The early reports of a Saudi national being question and detained, but not arrested, did not help matters.

In other words, everyone is talking and now we are waiting for the religion shoe to drop, waiting to see the quality of (a) the information that government officials choose to release and (b) the additional information that journalists — left, right and center — attempt to dig up.

Everyone is being extra cautious — as they should — when it comes to the facts that they think they know at this point.

One of the main stories at The Boston Globe has the basics, with the “person of interest” angle played down. Note the plural language in the lede:

A changed Boston started the search for normalcy today as law enforcement continued its search for those responsible for the Boston Marathon bombings that has so far claimed 3 lives, left more than 140 wounded and transformed downtown Boston into a closed-off crime scene.

Commuters faced increased security on the MBTA today in one of the signs of increased security in response to the detonation of two bombs, within 12 seconds of each other, at the finish line of the Marathon on Boylston Street Monday afternoon. At South Station this morning, Amtrak passengers were met by police with a bomb-sniffing dog who strolled alongside passengers. Baggage was swabbed by police and put through explosives-detecting scanner before passengers were allowed to board.

Overnight, a wave of law enforcement officials swarmed a home in Revere, looking at what the Revere Fire department described as a “person of interest,’’ but no arrests were reported this morning. The FBI, which has taken the lead in what a top official called a “potential terrorism investigation,’’ is expected to update the public at 9:30 a.m. today.

And later in the story, this addition glimpse of the behind-the-scenes activity:

No arrests have been reported this morning. According to a law enforcement official briefed on the investigation, authorities are trying to determine if more than one person was involved in the attacks. …

On Monday, a Saudi national was questioned by investigators at a Boston hospital and late Monday night descended on a high-rise apartment building in Revere and conducted a search related to the investigation. FBI and Homeland Security agents were seen entering the Water’s Edge apartment complex at 364 Ocean Ave.

So what are journalists looking for? At what point does religious information or, sadly, speculation enter the news picture?

If this early information is relevant, and this was an act of terror carried out by one or more radical Muslims, how do journalists make sure that readers understand — yet again — that the world of Islam is large and complex and that there is no way to somehow blame a hellish event of this kind on Islam and leave it at that? At the same time, journalists are supposed to report any information that can be shown — with facts, on the record — that is relevant to the actions and the motives of the individuals or the network that planned and committed the act of terrorism.

Do journalists report that millions of mainstream Muslims are appalled by the crime. Of course.

Do journalists report that some Muslims overseas rejoiced at the news? Yes, but be specific when it comes to who, what, when, where, why and how.

The goal, in other words, is to print the best information about religious links and motives that can be reported. It’s journalism.

I wrote about these challenges back in 2011 when dealing with early press coverage of the alleged “Christian fundamentalist” Behring Breivik in his hellish rampage in Norway. At that time, I argued that journalists should respond to his acts in precisely the same way that they respond to acts that are alleged to be linked to Islamic radicals.

… What are journalists looking for? … We need to know what he has said, what he has read, what sanctuaries he has chosen and the religious leaders who have guided him.

Also, follow the money, since Breivik certainly seems to have some. To what religious causes has he made donations? Is he a contributing member of a specific congregation in a specific denomination? Were the contributions accepted or rejected?

In conclusion, at this early stage, let me recommend the following Poynter.org classic from media ethicist Aly Colon, which ran with the headline, “Preying Presbyterians?” It focuses on the news reports that emphasized that Paul Hill, executed in 2003 for killing an abortion doctor, was a “former Presbyterian minister.”

Colon notes that journalists failed to note what brand of Presbyterianism they were dealing with. I would also add that Hill had been thrown out of these ultra-orthodox Presbyterian bodies because of his theological justifications for violence. In other words, they decided that he was a heretic.

These words from Colon are must reading right now, as journalists look for facts, instead of labels, in Norway. Yes, I would be saying precisely the same thing if it was alleged that the suspect was tied to some form of radical Islam. …

“When we use religious terms, especially designations of denominations, sects or groups, we need to offer more clarity about what they are and what they believe. We need to connect faith to facts. We need to define denominations. Context and specificity help news consumers better understand the religious people in the news and how religion affects what they do.”

As I said at that time, “Let us attend.”

The goal is to report any role that religion played in this act of terrorism, not to ignore or downplay that role, not to puff up or to exaggerate any such role. The goal, once again, is journalism, to, as I like to say, “Report unto others as you would want them to report unto you.”

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • Jerry

    I have my fingers cross that the reporting won’t be as bad as some we’ve seen recently.

  • William

    Yesterday on WBUR Radio, Boston NPR affiliate, the notion was clearly entertained that a right wing, home-grown domestic terrorist was likely to blame… someone with anti-abortion views, perhaps….

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    It “might” make sense to demur on the religion angle of the perpetrators until there is certainty that the perpetrators have been caught and that there is a religion angle.

    Here’s something else, a religion ghost much more subtle, less glaring in terms of the action of this story, and more of a human interest angle. That poor, youngest victim, Martin Richard, only 8 – some stories are accompanied by pictures of him on what is clearly his First Communion, with him wearing a white suit and tie and holding a banner he likely made in religion class. The photo was taken from Facebook, so it was widely available, but other outlets chose a really terrible, fuzzy shot instead. The boy’s mother and one sibling were injured. They are well regarded in their community, apparently, where the dad, a competitor in the marathon, is seen as a civic leader.

    But I was wondering about that First Communion photo. It is times like these, especially, that people of religion turn to religion, and this is clearly a religious family. Only one story — on PEOPLE.com — that I found mentioned that the Richards are very active in their church and mentioned the church by name. I went to the church’s website – lots of photos of events at the church – an Easter Egg Hunt with the kids, for instance – I was wondering if little Martin was to be found among them.

    Now, I don’t expect the news to take a religion angle in every case, and this is certainly off the beaten path as this story and the investigation continue to develop, but it seems to me that religion is a big part of “who” Martin is and how is family and friends are dealing with this tragedy.

    Some links for those interested:
    http://www.cnn.com/2013/04/16/us/boston-boy-killed/index.html – uses First Communion picture in front of church, from Facebook and so in public domain. Very little info.

    http://usnews.nbcnews.com/_news/2013/04/16/17776320-martin-richard-8-killed-in-boston-marathon-blast?lite – opts for really crappy picture rather than the First Communion one. Also very little info.

    http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2309545/Boston-Marathon-bombings-death-toll-Martin-Richard-8-named-1-3-victims-152-injured.html – lots of pics of the boy and one of the whole family in what could be a church basement or parish hall, but granted also could be a community center.

    http://www.people.com/people/article/0,,20691760,00.html – THIS one mentions that they belong to a church.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    I have twice seen a professor from Northeastern University interviewed on local Boston stations stating baldly and emphatically what William says was “entertained” as a theory on WBUR. Not a surprising quick surmise in liberal Boston.
    My daughter-in-law had just started down Boylston Street (where the finish line is) when police and marathon officials waved her and other runners off.
    My son had been pacing her off and on from the sidewalk behind the crowd so they were able to quickly get together and walked all the way to Charlestown to get out of the area. Meanwhile my wife and I were trying to text or cell phone them. Finally, an hour into the panic of where are they?? ended with a text message:” All Well.
    According to the TV the group my daughter-in-law was in was the group (charity runners) that was at the Finish Line when the bombs went off and my son would have been at ground zero on the side of the street where the main bomb went off if they had followed their original plans.
    Probably the most heart -rending picture in the media was of the boy who was murdered smiling in his White First Communion suit.

  • tmatt

    Authentic:

    The problem, in this case, is that the word “Saudi” raises the red flag right from the get go. The religion angle has to be pursued to some degree.

    • sari

      I disagree. The “Saudi” was apprehended at the suggestion of bystanders, not necessarily the best judges of character after 9/11. Early media reports, probably at government request, have stuck with known facts and avoided speculation. Overall, what I’ve seen and heard has been excellent and studiously neutral. They should add a religion angle when and if one arises.

      Otoh, even I recognized that Martin Richard’s was probably a First Communion photo. His religious affiliation and that of his family should have been noted, and someone should have interviewed their priest as part of the mini-obit, since religion was clearly important in their lives. Otherwise, they would have provided a different photo.

      • sari

        I want to add that “Saudi” is not a religion. Islam may be the dominant faith, but one should never assume.

    • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

      Yes, tmatt, of course a particular religion is implied in the term “Saudi” and perhaps it should have been followed up on. I’m wondering, though, if the implication was enough under the circumstances. Likewise, follow-up information about the pressure cookers used apparently being of a style available in or consistent with those in Pakistan or Afghanistan implies a religion angle. You know I’m not big defender of the MSM, and could just as easily argue that their avoidance of the religion angle in this case is part of a pro-Islam (or at least anti-anti-Islam) policy.

      Sari, you’re right that Saudi is not a religion, but on the other hand, and to tmatt’s point, there are not many options for a country not known for religious diversity and where public worship in anything other than the state Sunni brand of Islam is illegal.

  • tmatt

    SARI:

    Valid points, on a planet other than our own. Once the Saudi card was played by ANYONE, journalists had to take the religion angle into account, making their reporting task tougher and the need for great care even more important.

    Thus, my post.

  • Jerry

    The problem, in this case, is that the word “Saudi” raises the red flag right from the get go. The religion angle has to be pursued to some degree.

    . The two sentences should not be connected. Starting to ask questions about someone RUMORED to be of interest is to leap to contusions as a friend says. It betrays an assumption which might or might not be true. In depth reporting is way, WAY premature. Turn it around – if there had been a rumor that a Christian was being questioned, should we now start speculating about which group he belongs to and how abortion might have factored into his crimes? We need to wait for more evidence. We REALLY need to wait for more evidence and a suspect. Then it will be time to ask the very important religion questions.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    The local media is mentioning the religion of little Richard Martin and his family. They are Catholic and active in St. Ann’s Church, Dorchester (a Boston neighborhood) . Richard attended school at Pope John Paul II Academy. There is apparently going to be an ecumenical prayer service at Catholic Holy Cross Cathedral in Boston’s South End.

  • http://www.authenticbioethics.blogspot.com AuthenticBioethics

    tmatt, you could be right: http://www.salon.com/2013/04/16/lets_hope_the_boston_marathon_bomber_is_a_white_american/

    To summarize the article, it’s just soooo unfair that “white males” do not become suspects after experience with, say, Tim McVeigh or the Aurora shooter, as a group the way Muslims do when an Islamicist perpetrates an act of violence.

    The shortcoming of the thesis is… white males who commit these atrocities do not do so “because” they’re white males or to advance “white male-ism” – white supremacists are an exception to that I suppose. On the other hand, I suppose one could say that white supremacist extremists who commit hate crimes do impugn “peace-loving” white supremacists…

  • tmatt

    Folks, I have spiked lots of comments that — essentially — have blasted me (bigot is a big word) for the sin of automatically blaming Muslims for this crime. I must be REALLY UPSET that evidence points elsewhere now, right?

    No. The word “Saudi” came out early in factual reporting, which meant there were natural questions to ask to to prepare to discuss. The questions are being asked and answered. Journalists (and the police, of course) seem to be doing their jobs.

    Please note that, in the actual content of my post, I noted that journalists should ask precisely the same kinds of practical questions no matter WHAT label — Christian, Muslim, fundamentalist, etc. — is attached to suspects in these kinds of stories. It’s journalism.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    Another issue is how the media should describe or label the bombing. Is it a “tragedy” (as in a natural disaster)????. Most reporters are using this word, but I have heard others object to calling the deliberate murder of people simply a “tragedy.” But the worst underwhelming description of the terror bombing I heard this morning on WBZ radio. The newsperson called the bombing an “unfortunate” event.

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