The Innocence of Muslims story highlights how media must be at the top of their game when reporting incidents of intolerance and hatred and particularly so when covering stories that can have a direct influence on the fragile relations that exist between religious communities.

There is nothing easier, at times of crisis, than for journalists to make sweeping generalisations and place whole groups, nationalities and religions into convenient boxes.

This is what happened in much of western media after a series of deadly protests in Muslim countries against a video mocking Islam, the Innocence of Muslims. The media coverage was dominated by the notion of “Muslim rage” and the suggestion of deep-seated anger and outrage within the Muslim community worldwide.

But was that really the case? Were Muslims everywhere incandescent with indignation over this crude production? Did it deserve its place on the front pages and the nightly news bulletins? Why did it catch re in the newsrooms and did the media do their job in tracking the origins of the story and correcting the misinformation that they themselves put out? Perhaps most importantly, did the media put the story in its proper context by giving equal coverage to the Muslim voices calling for non-violence?

These questions can never be satisfactorily answered, but they should be addressed if media are to learn the lessons of an incident that added to the deep discontent in relations between religions, but which may have had quite a different impact if it had been reported in context.

When media get it wrong in the midst of a rush to publish, it can have disturbing consequences. One example among many is the instant reporting of the terrorist bombing of the Boston Marathon in April 2013.

In that tragic event, three people were killed and 176 were injured. One of them was a young man of Saudi origin who, while in the hospital being treated for his wounds, had his apartment ransacked by police “in a startling show of force.” He had been targeted solely because he was from the Middle East.

This was the basis for a report in the tabloid New York Post which incorrectly reported that 12 people were killed in the explosions and, more alarmingly, that a “Saudi national who suffered shrapnel wounds” had been identified as “a suspect.”(1)

Police disowned the story, which was never corrected, but it spread quickly through the usual information pipelines: within 48 hours the story had 48,000 Facebook likes and was tweeted more than 16,000 times. In fact, those responsible for the attack were two US citizens of European descent.

The social network coverage of the Boston bombing led to an extraordinary burst of speculation – some later described it as witch-hunting – in which people caught on camera around the scene of the marathon tragedy were subject to harassment as potential suspects in the bombings. Later in a surprising display of humility, apologies emerged from some social networks sites.(2)

Similarly, the way the Innocence of Muslim story was handled in many countries underscored the dangers of unprofessionalism in media pro ling of people and events.

Initial media coverage from agencies was highly inaccurate. This led to the wide circulation of dangerous myths about the origins of the film that inflamed passions and hardened prejudices.

The online media and social networks reinforced the impact of these 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.

Of particular importance is the weight that reporting gives to voices of moderation and calm and those calling for mutual respect and understanding of the values and beliefs of others.

In this case, the most common complaint, recognised by media support groups themselves was a singular failure to provide all sides of the story and to give equal space to mainstream, moderate and majority voices within the Muslim community speaking out against violence and extremism and either calling for peaceful protests, or for the film to be ignored altogether and dismissing the issue as trivial.

Other media failings included:

a) Disproportionate focus on images of violence;

b) Failure to properly establish the truth about the film’s origins;

c) Slow response to the correction and circulation of false information about the film;

d) Widespread failures to establish the true levels of support for the film within the Muslim community at large;

e) A general lack of informed analysis to explain 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, politicians encouraged a confrontational approach and gave fair wind to flagrant abuse of professionalism by major sections of media.

A measure of the lack of balance is reflected in how many media down-played coverage of an outpouring of popular anger in Benghazi, Libya, where a few days after widely- reported protests against the film, tens of thousands of people took to the streets – many more than in protests over the film – to confront militant Islamic extremists for using a demonstration over the film as cover for a terrorist attack and the killing of US ambassador Chris Stevens.

Protesters marched on the camps of Ansar al-Sharia, the group whose Islamic fighters are believed to have been behind the terrorist attack. Although a further 11 people were killed and 60 wounded, the extremists were forced to quit the area.(3)

While the complexities of the story went unreported the nuanced debate, such as it was, once again highlighted the gulf of understanding in the global debate about free speech.

Although it was produced in the US there was no possibility of prosecution of the film’s producers for the contentious content because of constitutional protection.

The First Amendment of the American Constitution protects free speech even where it is blasphemous and when President Obama requested YouTube to review its hosting of the video, the company said the video fell within its permissible guidelines because although it was against Islam, it was not directed against Muslim people and thus not considered in these terms as hate speech.

On the other hand, many of the film’s critics across the Muslim world called for action against the film and its makers on the grounds of blasphemy. In Pakistan the government banned YouTube and joined with others, including Turkey, to press the 56-nation Organisation of Islamic Co-operation to lobby at the United Nations for a global blasphemy law that would criminalise religious defamation.(62)

The Innocence of Muslims film may have widened the chasm of misunderstanding over free expression, but it has once again highlighted the responsibility of media to maintain the highest professional standards in reporting such events.

Above all media must not do anything that incites violence and hostility. Journalists must embrace fully the instincts of their craft – to be truthful; to be independent; to be impartial; to show humanity; and to show humility by correcting errors and responding to the concerns of their audience.

These ethical values, which best identify journalism in the information chaos of the internet and social networking, are what separates journalism from the crowd. But as this report reveals journalism is stretched to breaking point in an age of intense media competition and by the demand for instant news, immediate analysis and rapid explanations.

Journalists and editors have little time to test the credibility of so-called facts or to verify the images and opinions raining down on newsrooms across all platforms of communications. As a result media – some of them iconic world leaders in journalism – are caught out in acts of unprofessionalism.

The capacity of journalism to influence the norms and values of society by providing news coverage and analysis that provides context, proportion and reliability in equal measure is severely challenged. As a result, there is the prospect of more bias, prejudice and profound misunderstanding between communities.

The dangers are immense and more must be done to raise awareness, both within the media industry and among policymakers, about the need for fresh actions to help journalists and media avoid repeating their mistakes. Among the measures which may be useful are 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 of the need to raise awareness on the dangers of hate speech and violent provocation arising from use of online communications and social networks’

• Encourage more research into specific aspects of media performance that have been identified as causes of 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.

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