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Accuracy in Media

The sensitive folks at the Society of Professional Journalists issue guidelines that encourage editors to avoid phrases such as "Islamic terrorist." And if you think that's bad, wait until you see guideline #12.

12:01 AM, Oct 26, 2001 • By STEPHEN F. HAYES
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IMAGINE THE OUTCRY if a newspaper editor permitted a Catholic priest to revise--before publication--a reporter's story about a pro-life rally. Or if a columnist called in a tobacco executive to edit an article about the hazards of smoking. Or if a publisher gave an advertiser the opportunity to rework a piece about his industry.

Spontaneous panel discussions would break out across the country in response to these outrages. Mass Communications professors and retired reporters would gravely fret about the future of journalism. A loud chorus of media critics would condemn the miscreants. The journalist would almost certainly be fired.

But such a transgression occurred shortly after last month's terrorist attacks, and because it was done in the name of "diversity," the editor was celebrated by his colleagues. Richard Luna, managing editor of the Salem, Oregon, Statesman Journal, invited Salem-area Muslims to edit the pages of his newspaper for any offensive content. No one criticized Luna, but if anyone had, he could have pointed to guidelines issued by the Society of Professional Journalists in his defense.

Earlier this month, the group published guidelines for journalists who hope to avoid racial profiling and stereotyping in their reporting.

The SPJ guidelines are absurd. They come perilously close to calling for racial and religious quotas in both news photography and composition, and they focus so obsessively on avoiding "offensive" words and phrases that truth and accuracy seem like secondary concerns. And if the guidelines read like a public relations project from the American Muslim Council--a Washington, D.C., lobbying group that works "toward the political empowerment of Muslims in America"--there's a good reason: The group helped develop the new diversity standards.

SPJ guidelines instruct photographers to "seek out people from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds when photographing Americans mourning," and "seek out people from a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds when photographing rescue and other public service workers and military personnel." What's more, they should use visual images to "demystify veils, turbans and other cultural articles and customs."

According to the guidelines, now is the time for journalists to "make an extra effort to include olive-complexioned and darker men and women, Sikhs, Muslims and devout religious people of all types in arts, business, society columns and all other news and feature coverage, not just stories about the crisis."

The same goes for analysts. "Seek out experts on military strategies, public safety, diplomacy, economics and other pertinent topics who run the spectrum of race, class, gender and geography."

The guidelines also warn against using misleading qualifiers. "Avoid using word combinations such as 'Islamic terrorist' or 'Muslim extremist' that are misleading because they link whole religions to criminal activity. Be specific: Alternate choices, depending on context, include 'Al Qaeda terrorists' or, to describe the broad range of groups involved in Islamic politics, 'political Islamists.' Do not use religious characterizations as shorthand when geographic, political, socioeconomic or other distinctions might be more accurate."

But these concerns about qualifiers must be, well, qualified. "When writing about terrorism, remember to include white supremacist, radical anti-abortionists and other groups with a history of such activity."

The guidelines also instruct journalists to "use spellings preferred by the American Muslim Council (AMC), including 'Muhammad,' 'Quran,' and 'Makkah,' not 'Mecca.'"

No doubt, the most disturbing item on the SPJ list is guideline #12, the directive that gives cover to editors like Salem's Richard Luna. "Ask men and women from within targeted communities to review your coverage and make suggestions." It isn't clear, however, whether guideline #12 is meant to assuage the targeted communities or skittish editors. According to a report posted on the SPJ website, Luna said after the incident, "I,m not sure how much [content] they really changed, but we all felt a lot better at the end of the night."

The best thing that can be said about the SPJ guidelines is that they will likely be ignored. They should be, because they raise more questions than they answer. Do we need a Muslim or "olive-complexioned" quote on this Iditarod story? Can we run this photo even though we can't determine the "religious backgrounds" of the people in it? Is it acceptable to use "radical anti-abortionist" in this story about "political Islamists?" If the hijackers claim to have died in the name of Allah, can we omit their religion? Does anyone know of a lower-middle-class white female with expertise on troop movements in Mazar-e Sharif? What the heck is Makkah?