Innocent Mistakes: EJN Report on How Media Failure Inspires Hate

The EJN today launches a report that gets to the heart of the ethical crisis facing journalists and media who struggle to maintain standards in the online age. The report Innocent Mistakes highlights the influence on media of deeply-embedded stereotypes and how the rush to publish is squeezing editorial standards.

The report reviews coverage by major media in Britain, the United States, Turkey and Pakistan of the controversy over the Innocence of Muslims, a short video which came to prominence in September last year when it was uploaded to YouTube with anti-Islamic content.

It generated an internet buzz and on the back of some widespread, flawed and shoddy reporting it became a global media sensation, provoking angry demonstrations and violence around the world that led to 75 deaths.

The report reveals that

·         Journalists were duped by a small-time criminal and Christian bigot who lied about the origins of the film, claiming that he was  a Jew and that the film had million-dollar backing from 100 Jewish investors,

·         Media in both the US and Pakistan gave undue prominence to extremist religious opinions at the expense of moderate and mainstream voices,

·         Media in all countries generally failed to explain the origins of violence, who was behind it and their political intentions,

·         Media gave the impression with little justification that the film had provoked widespread resentment and anger within the global Islamic community,

·         Governments in Pakistan and Turkey exploited the confrontational mood generated by the film to strengthen calls for a blasphemy law at international level.

The scale of the deception was breathtaking. The film-maker, Mark Basseley Youssef, who called himself Sam Bacile in discussion with reporters, told media he was a Jew (in fact, he is a Coptic Christian). He brazenly dubbed the English version of the video with hate-filled Arabic dialogue without the actors’ knowledge.

The controversy ignited fresh political violence. One protest over the film, in Benghazi, was used as a cover by armed terrorists for an attack on the American mission in Libya and the killing of US Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three of his staff. Later demonstrations by moderate Arabs against the terrorists received scant media attention compared to the original reports. 

The film also sparked new debates about free speech, internet censorship and blasphemy and became the subject of incendiary comment. It led to the issuing of Fatwas – Islamic legal rulings, often misinterpreted as death sentences – against the video’s participants and, famously, to one government minister in Pakistan offering a 100,000 dollar bounty for the death of the producer.

Although some reporting gave the impression that this was a major production, it was nothing of the sort. The video was widely derided as amateurish. Its aim was to insult, provoke confrontation and reinforce divisions. In this sense it was of use only to a small, narrow community of political activists on both sides of the febrile religious divide between mainly Islamic and Christian communities over the past decade.

The Innocence of Muslims affair is just the latest incident in which media have been at the centre of attempts by political groups to manipulate public opinion to foment religious and cultural divisions between communities.This tendency has its origins in the development of the so-called war on terror following the 9/11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington.

The EJN report highlights major editorial mistakes including failure to establish the truth about the film’s origins; the uncorrected circulation of false information about the film; a lamentable lack of reporting of voices calling for peaceful and non-violent protest; and a general failure to provide context which explained the reasons for violence and who was behind it. 

Many responsible media sought balance in their reporting and tried to correct their errors, but many more did not.

Although the report is not exhaustive it highlights failings in media coverage that should be troubling for journalists everywhere and illustrates how journalism must be alert to the dangers of hate speech and the casual manipulation of media by unscrupulous political groups. Among the recommendations in the report are calls for more awareness-raising in media circles about the threats posed by media-savvy militants who seek to use media to stir up violent confrontation and a proposal for an annual report that monitors incidents of media and journalism being used by hate-mongers. The report can be downloaded here.