Kathleen Parker: Why focus on slain students’ religion?

Kathleen Parker

Kathleen Parker

As soon as the news broke Tuesday evening, anyone near a TV, radio or computer heard that three Muslim students were murdered near the University of North Carolina.

My immediate thought was, “Oh, my God, not Muslims.”

That very same day, we had gotten confirmation that 26-year-old American hostage Kayla Mueller, who had been abducted by the Islamic State, was, indeed, dead. The last thing we need to do is create an impression for the Islamic State or any other terrorist group that we are as bad as they are.

My second thought was: Wait a minute. Why are they telling me the North Carolina victims were Muslim? Why is this information in headlines too numerous to count? It is highly unlikely that any mention would have been made of the victims’ religion had they been Christian, Jewish, Hindu or some other, unless they were in the midst of a religious ceremony at the time of the attack.

By implication, many initial reports (and some that followed) created and sustained the impression that anti-Muslim animus motivated the attacks, which may or may not have been the case. Wouldn’t it have been better (BEG ITAL)not(END ITAL) to incite that riot from the get-go? Wouldn’t the headline, newscast or social media blurt have been more accurate had it simply reported that three students were murdered? Later in the story was the place to mention that the students were Muslims of Arab descent, as part of a neutral biography.

One can only conclude that the mention of their faith was simply to juice the story. When the Islamic State is beheading hostages or burning one alive, the world doesn’t need juice.

Professional journalism standards have long discouraged mention of potentially inflammatory details, including race, unless that detail was relevant to the story. This is for good reason — to minimize public bias. To say in a headline or lead paragraph that a black person was allegedly killed or raped by a white assailant — or vice versa — is by its emphasis to imply a racial motivation, and it creates another sort of story.

As updated reports have trickled in, we’ve learned that the three students, who were related, had had a long-standing dispute with the alleged murderer over parking. They all lived in the same apartment complex. Parking rage? Or anti-Muslim rage?

About mid-day Wednesday, Time magazine posted this headline online: “Police don’t point to a motive,” followed by, “Police charged a North Carolina man Wednesday in the murder of three Muslim students, and amid fears that the victims were targeted because of their religion, authorities said a preliminary investigation indicated that a parking dispute may have led to the shooting.”

“Amid fears,” eh? Who created those fears? Random students standing around the parking lot? A cop talking off the cuff to a reporter? Is this all it takes to fuel an international misunderstanding and, who knows what next?

About the same time, The Washington Post’s online headline read: “Police claim parking dispute in N.C. killings that sparked Muslim outcry.” The Muslim outcry might not have occurred had the story been reported more responsibly.

We’ll know more in a few hours or days about the suspect, Craig Stephen Hicks, and his motives. According to his Facebook page, he’s an atheist and despises all religions equally. We’ll see.

In the meantime, it isn’t up to the media to create an impression that is prejudicial and possibly inaccurate. The least we can do is keep our bellows away from sparks.

Email: kathleenparker@washpost.com.

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