This report reviews media coverage of the Innocence of Muslims, a short film trailer produced by a religious activist and distributed over the Internet, which became the spark for protest and violence across the globe and leading to at least 75 deaths.
The film was, by all accounts, a low-budget and amateurish production yet it was given enormous publicity and was used to reinforce deep divisions between western and Muslim religious cultures.
Coverage of the film has raised concerns about the influence of deeply-embedded stereotypes in media reporting. In this case editorial failings, albeit inadvertently, may have reinforced prejudice and misunderstanding.
The 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. In some countries, Pakistan for instance, some politicians openly encouraged violence and endorsed the provocative hate speech found in some sections of media.
This report, based upon extensive interviews with journalists, academics and media leaders, is narrowly focused and looks at coverage of the film in a number of sample countries – the United States, United Kingdom, Pakistan and Turkey – all of them places where terrorism and religious extremism has left its mark.
The report concludes that:
• Online media and social networks reinforced the impact of media mistakes and played a significant role in circulating false information in the first days of the crisis. Although there were many instances of restraint and caution, both online and of ine, there was a general failure to correct these damaging initial impressions;
• Additionally, in the United States and the United Kingdom, media may have exaggerated the strength of feeling in response to the film in the Muslim community. Media in both countries struggled to provide balance in their coverage and failed to provide adequate context to explain the origins of violence;
• In Pakistan religious parties and extremists dominated the news agenda of mass circulation, local- language media while moderate Muslim voices in the mainstream were largely marginalized.
At the same time, senior political figures supported actions designed to encourage protest and to incite violence.
• In Turkey media were largely uncritical as government leaders sought to use the controversy to build a platform for launching an international campaign to strengthen laws of blasphemy.
The report also highlights research that shows how minority religious or activist groups from the fringes of politics receive disproportionate attention in American media.
It concludes with some recommendations for raising awareness within media on the dangers of hate speech including proposals to:
• Create a global databank of media best practices to help journalists avoid hate speech and to strengthen levels of professionalism;
• Establish a specific reporting process that will monitor media in key countries and report annually on coverage of incidents of hate speech or acts of false, provocative or unethical journalism particularly in the field of reporting religious affairs or relations between different communities;
• Promote more debate within journalism and the wider community on the need to raise awareness on the dangers of hate speech arising from use of online communications and social networks;
• Encourage more research into aspects of media performance that have raised concern in this case including verification of potentially inflammatory information prior to publication; publication of corrections and clarifications of false information; use of extremist and minority voices; and the need for media to use more representative and relevant sources to achieve context, balance and impartiality.
Finally, although this report is not exhaustive it highlights failings in media coverage of this controversial film that should be troubling for journalists everywhere. It points to the need for accuracy and context in the reporting and analysis of events when they have an impact on the fragile relations between different cultures and communities.
Above all, it illustrates how journalism must be alert to the dangers of hate speech and the casual manipulation of media by unscrupulous political groups.
Ethical Journalism Network