Mainstream media under attack over the coverage of three dead Muslim-Americans

By Shabnam Amini

Three Muslim-Americans were murdered at a condominium complex near the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill on Tuesday night in what appears to be an anti-Muslim terrorist attack.

The attack took place at a condominium complex near the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, at 5 p.m. EST.

Officers were called to reports of gunshots at 5:11 p.m. at an apartment block largely housing academics and young professionals on Summerwalk Circle in Chapel Hill.

The three victims were identified by police and school officials as Deah Barakat, 23, who was a second-year student at the University of North Carolina’s School of Dentistry and his wife, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, was set to enroll there in the fall. The third victim was Abu-Salha’s 19-year-old sister, Razan, a student at nearby North Carolina State University in Raleigh.

Right to left: 19-year-old, Razan Abu-Salha, her sister, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat.
Right to left: 19-year-old, Razan Abu-Salha, her sister, Yusor Mohammad Abu-Salha, 21, and her husband, Deah Shaddy Barakat.

Barakat’s last Facebook post was about providing “free dental supplies and food to over 75 homeless people in downtown Durham.”

Barakat and Abu-Salha were newlyweds. Barakat had been fundraising for a service project to bring Syrian refugee children dental care in Turkey.

A 46-year-old man, identified by police as Craig Stephen Hicks, has been charged with three counts of first-degree murder.

Police officers in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Tuesday. The authorities reported that the three victims were pronounced dead at the scene. Credit Al Drago/The News & Observer, via Associated Press
Police officers in Chapel Hill, N.C., on Tuesday. The authorities reported that three victims were pronounced dead at the scene. Credit Al Drago/The News & Observer, via Associated Press

The victims were found shot dead at the scene. Some residents described not even being aware there was an incident until police arrived. Sources told local WRAL News that all three had been shot in the head.

“Eight hours after the attack (which occurred at 5 p.m. EST), there is still very little media coverage, and no national coverage by any major news outlets,” journalist Ben Norton wrote on his Twitter account.

It wasn’t until Wednesday morning when CNN broke the news on their website and featured it as their top story. Fox News also published the story on their website but it did not make it one of the top headlines of the day. In fact, it was the link to The Independent’s and Al Jazeera’s take on the story that went viral on Facebook early Wednesday morning.

“A lot of the initial reports and posts were from private sources, family, and friends who knew them,” said Karma Orfaly, majoring in Political Science and Human Rights also the president of SMU’s Muslim Student Association.“That was the only way the story was being told at the moment and awareness was being spread.”

A lot of people expressed that they felt there was a lack of media coverage over the story.

“The sad fact is that the mainstream media that recently brought us “I am Charlie” has no interest in humanizing Muslims,” posted Imam Zaid Shakir, an Islamic public figure, on Facebook.

Chris Rock's tweet about the Chapel Hill shooting media coverage.
Chris Rock’s tweet about the Chapel Hill shooting media coverage.
@JRehling tweet's showing what was on America's top news sites today.
John Rehling’s tweet showing what was on America’s top news sites on February 11.

Though opinions were strong about the coverage, Robert Hunt, Director of Global Theological Education at SMU, pointed out that the media does try it’s best.

“The mainstream media does do a good job, just not good enough,” says Hunt.

It is noticeable that the mainstream media puts most stories of violence connected to Muslims in a way where Islam is behind the atrocity, when in fact it could be that the person who caused the violence is unstable.

“I think that people are quick to jump to the conclusion that Islam is to blame, like the Charlie Hebdo case or the attacks in Sydney Australia in the coffee shop,” said Orfaly. “But when the roles are reversed, we don’t blame certain religions for the same actions because that would be considered ridiculous.”

Hunt went online and looked up many of the major news organizations headlines on the Chapel Hill incident, asking questions like: ‘What’s the headline? What’s the lead? and What’s the timing?’ It appeared from what Hunt saw was that the story was covered in the UK before it was covered in the US.

“We need to see who is in the newsroom at that time of night,” said Hunt, explaining why the U.S. news stations may have been late to cover the news.

At the time that police issued their first statement, the first morning shifts were coming on and most U.S. news outlets were putting the stories of the day to bed.

“That may be an explanation,” said Hunt. “Or maybe that news wasn’t that important at the moment.”

Orfaly still believes that Muslims are covered in the news only when it portrays them in a negative light.

“When it comes to covering a Muslim victim versus a non-Muslim victim, they seem to care more when the Muslim is the perpetrator,” said Orfaly.

The more important questions we need to ask ourselves are ‘what are the headlines?’ and ‘what’s the lead?’ and ‘how does the lead vary between the different news outlets like NBC, ABC, CBS, Al Jazeera, USA Today, CNN and Fox?’

Comic done by upset artist.

First, journalists should assume that every religion is quite different, so the terms that mean something in Christian theology won’t mean anything in Islam, Hinduism or Buddhism.

The second thing journalists should ask themselves, at least in the headline, is ‘does religion make a difference?’

“I thought about this with the Chapel Hill killings” said Hunt. “Every headline stated ‘three Muslims are killed,’ I don’t ever see a headline that says ‘three Christians are killed’.”

When it comes to news connected with Jews or Muslims and violence, it is easy to assume that religious identity is tied with it. Journalists should ask themselves why this assumption exists.

Third, journalists should find out about the religion itself before rushing to judgement, or even allowing an official to rush to judgement. If a public official says something connecting back to a religion or tradition, ask them if they can justify their statement or reveal what their sources are.

Less than 24 hours after the incident, the discussion has moved from what happened at Chapel Hill to how the media is covering what happened at Chapel Hill.

People should keep in mind that the mainstream media has a job to get all the facts right and confirmed before reporting it. While they are collecting information, it is very easy to collect the wrong information, and sometimes it is not the journalists fault. For example, officials may release the wrong information in order to get it out as fast as possible.

“It’s not just sad that they were Muslims who were killed,” said Orfaly. “It’s sad that they were really great human beings that were trying to give back to their community and didn’t get to see their success.”