Analysis: The effects of including religion in Fort Hood coverage

Sunday, November 8, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 3:50 p.m. CST, Monday, November 9, 2009

COLUMBIA — Nidal Malik Hasan killed 13 people and wounded at least 30 others in a mass shooting Thursday. Hasan is a Muslim.

Jason Rodriguez killed one person and injured five others in a mass shooting on Friday in Orlando, Fla. Who knows Rodriguez's religion?

Ibrahim Hooper, spokesman for the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Washington, posed that question Friday. While Hooper said news reports could not avoid including Hasan's faith once it came up, he added that this angle needs to be kept in perspective.

"One disturbed individual is not representative of American Muslims or of Islam as a faith," Hooper said.

Most media reports of the shooting — including an Associated Press story on the Missourian's home page Friday — included the fact that Hasan was a Muslim within the first few paragraphs.

"Soldiers who witnessed the shooting rampage at Fort Hood that left 13 people dead reported that the gunman shouted 'Allahu Akbar!'" — an Arabic phrase for "God is great!" — Friday's Associated Press story began.

A "total lack of reliability" exists when it comes to eyewitness testimony, said David McDonald, an MU psychology professor. There are a "mountain of studies saying eyewitness testimony is worthless," McDonald said.

Ismail Hameduddin, outreach officer for the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, questioned the relevancy of including the shooter's religion at all.

"If a Christian did something like this and was psychologically impaired, people don't mention he was a Christian. I don't see why it's relevant," Hameduddin said.

Studies have shown that demographic information  — such as religion —  at the beginning of a story can color what people take away from it. MU Equity Director Noel English said that kind of information in a news report is what people tend to remember.

MU Equity is part of the Chancellors Diversity Initiative, a program designed to make MU a more inclusive campus.

If news organizations decide including religion in a story is necessary, they need to provide context, Hameduddin said.

"Islam does not condone these kinds of things," he said, adding that perhaps stories should have mentioned that Hasan is not a very aware Muslim.


News reports need to avoid assigning a level of religious devotion to a person and then suggesting that as a motive for a crime, he said.

"If you say one religion is more dangerous than another, that is something we object to," Hooper said.

People in Columbia are generally open-minded, Hameduddin said, and most realize that the actions of one Muslim do not represent the Islamic faith as a whole. In larger cities, however, he has seen people react harshly toward Muslims after an unfavorable news report.

Hooper said the American-Islamic Relations Council has received hate calls and messages, and leaders have been threatened. But, he said, the council has  also received support from non-Muslims.

The hate calls and e-mails are a "fact of life in the post-9/11 era," Hooper said.

Furqaan Sadiq, a graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism and coordinator of the Muslim Speakers Bureau of Columbia, said he worries that focusing on religion in the media reaffirms negative stereotypes about Muslims.

People need to remember that U.S. Muslims feel great sadness about this tragedy as other Americans do, Sadiq said. An incident like this affects everyone, he said, adding that quite a few Muslims belong to the military.

"Many American Muslims are active citizens and want to give back to this country," Sadiq said. His own father works at the Fort Campbell military base in northern Kentucky.

Thursday's incident at Fort Hood will serve as a call to action from American Muslims to engage with their neighbors and show this is wrong, Sadiq said.

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Andrew Polk November 9, 2009 | 11:45 a.m.

Why was Major Hasan's religion an issue in the Ft. Hood massacre and not in Jason Rodriguez's shooting in Orlando? The more important question is why would any journalist entertain such a stupid question?


Maj. Hasan's rampage was a political statement motivated by his faith. Rodriguez was a lunatic whose motives had nothing to do with his religious faith.

That, Mr. Essig, is why religion is an important part of the Ft. Hood story. And, notwithstanding the hand-wringing from Islamic groups in this country each time acts of terror are carried out in the name of Islam, they are doing nothing substantive to bring about a reformation of a faith that is disproportionally responsible for such acts of terror.

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 9, 2009 | 12:08 p.m.

("Ismail Hameduddin, outreach officer for the Islamic Center of Central Missouri, questioned the relevancy of including the shooter's religion at all.")
If one might prescribe to a radical, fundamentalist faction of religion which includes JiHad, the killing of "infidels" and could very well be a "Twelver," I would say one's extreme religious beliefs, as a member of the United States Army, might be a slight concern.

(Report Comment)
Jim Roe November 9, 2009 | 12:19 p.m.

Unfortunately, the religion of the shooter is very relevant to this story, and for Mr. Hooper to say otherwise in pure ignorance and just weak Islamic spin. Who are we fighting in the Iraq and Afghanistan? Who are the terrorists? They are Islamic extemists and that cannot be denied. I agree with the last writer, that Islamic leaders around the world need to start being more active in their denunciation of Islamic terrorists. I honestly think they are afraid of offending them, for both personal and professional reasons. Also for MU psych professor to make the remarks he did about eyewitness accounts being worthless and having a "total lack of reliability", I hope his remarks were taken out of context, or he needs to do some self evaluation and maybe step outside into the real world for awhile. Certainly, not all eyewitness accounts are 100% reliable, but to categorize them as worthless and having a "total lack of reliability" is ludicrous - especially coming from a professor.

(Report Comment)
Michael Schrantz November 9, 2009 | 12:35 p.m.

@Andrew Polk

"A 'total lack of reliability' exists when it comes to eyewitness testimony, said David McDonald, an MU psychology professor. There are a 'mountain of studies saying eyewitness testimony is worthless,' McDonald said."

You are a perfect example of how misinformation in a story can affect what you take away from it. Do you still think the Columbine shooting was done by a "trench coat mafia" and was somehow linked to Marilyn Manson? If so, you should look deeper into issues and formulate your opinion based on better sources.

Here is something for you:

(Report Comment)
Ray Shapiro November 9, 2009 | 3:48 p.m.

It's pretty sad when the mentality of America's progressive left would rather exercise a self-imposed attitude of "political correctness" as it pertains to possibly "hurting the feelings" of radical, Islamic extremists at the expense of our own country's National Security.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith November 10, 2009 | 7:11 a.m.

Lenin is supposed to have posited that when the time came it would be easy to hang all the Capitalists because the Capitalists would vie for the concession to provide the rope! Didn't quite work out that way, did it?

So what do we have now? Our Leftist friends would not only fail to oppose Islamic terrorism but would abjectly apologize to the terrorists for the terrorists' having to exert themselves while committing their terror?

(Report Comment)

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