Monday, February 15, 2010

Channel 5 disproves yet promotes anti-Muslim accusations circulated by local churches

Above: Cornerstone Church, Madison, TN and
Islamville community mosque, Dover, TN

The rest of the country is starting to learn about the journalistic embarrassment committed by Channel 5 after the 2010 Super Bowl. If you haven't heard, the background is that the station aired a story about local Christian churches (including the above-pictured Cornerstone Church in Madison) who are circulating a DVD with negative claims about specific Muslim communities across America, including a small, rural Muslim community in Dover, Tennessee called Islamville. The station's report concludes that the negative claims against the Dover community are bunk.

In promos and in much of the story itself, however, the station planted the opposite conclusion in the minds of its viewers, for ratings.

One summary is here.

What else can be said about this than what's already been said across Nashville and also in the national media?

The horse's mouth: what the Christian Action Network and Channel 5 have to say, after the fact

From the Christian Action Network, the people who made the DVD:
One of the best things we can do is alert the people and media...And this T.V. news broadcast has done just that.
From the station's news director Sandra Boonstra: the word "inflammatory" is a myth, and people act only rationally:
I also do not believe that a two part report ... is going to incite violence in people because they just woke up after seeing our stories and suddenly decided they are anti-Muslim. I would hope that any opinion someone may have on a topic would be based on something much deeper.
As long as we're hoping, I sure hope the station isn't planning on running any stories on suicide during the next sweeps week. Note to news directors: it's common knowledge that how news is reported can directly affect viewer behavior, and suicide is one of the more famous examples.

The Columbia Journalism Review caps its summary of this Music City Debacle by correctly and elegantly saying that
the truth should have been quickly highlighted, not kept away from viewers while urging them to tune back in, and not delayed while factless charges were leveled against a beleaguered minority.

Ethical guidelines to keep in mind

The ethics archives of journalism site warn against this kind of reporting:
  • Journalists Must Expose, Not Perpetuate, Bogus News (this is a 2009 story that, interestingly enough, starts with an anecdote about the Vanderbilt Hustler and the Nashville City Paper):
    when professional newsrooms become part of the problem, misinformation elevates from an annoyance to a danger to democracy.
  • Anytime you promote a stereotype, you undermine your credibility:
    It creates images in the minds of viewers and readers. ... More often than not, stereotypical terms result in confusion about what you want to describe. More important than being sensitive is upholding the fundamental value of accuracy.
  • Breaking News of Uncertain Sourcing:
    Although many journalists are eager to point out when they have a scoop, few give much ink or airtime to competitors when they are repeating what others report. ... it would make sense to put the attribution in the headline
Note that the final bit of ethics guidance above is about news organizations quoting competitors, as opposed to religious groups. But in this case Channel 5 and the group making the original accusation were saying much of the same thing, at least during Channel 5's promos and in the bulk of its story. The two organizations are more competition than they may realize.

Within hours of broadcast: graffiti on local mosque

Anti-Muslim graffiti appeared on a local mosque within 48 hours of the conclusion of the Channel 5 report. Read more from the Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, the Nashville Scene, and the Nashville City Paper. See also Post Politics, which links to local blog coverage including Aunt B. and Southern Beale.

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