‘Dog Bites Man’ Newsworthy Too


Posted Sep 27, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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‘Dog Bites Man’ Newsworthy Too


Coverage of the Pope’s speech and the corresponding response has generated misinformed views about Islam and Muslims. One such view comes from Kathleen Parker (Translating the Pope, 9/20/06), although it must be noted that she is not alone in her conclusions.

Parker makes two arguments: the first is that the Pope’s key point was lost in the uproar. Undoubtedly so, but many have noted that the inclusion of Manuel II’s comments was not only insensitive, but also unnecessary. Their exclusion would not have altered the speech’s central idea in the least. Further, if the Emperor’s views “do not in any way express [the Pope’s] personal thought” then why did he cite them to begin with? We may never know.

The second argument, which is the focus of this piece, is the fact that the retaliation has included acts of violence only proves the Pope right – we have on our hands a self-fulfilling prophecy. (Believe it or not, majority of the Muslims are not oblivious to this irony).

However, before we discover why such a conclusion is flawed, take a moment to consider this: what is newsworthy? In other words, how should the media determine what merits coverage?

An old journalistic saying, attributed to the American journalist and author Charles Anderson Dana, sets the criteria as such: “When a dog bites a man, that is not news, but if a man bites a dog, that is news.” Understandably, the former is not unusual or rare; the latter (we hope) is. Thus, the former does not merit coverage; the latter does.

This “man bites dog” principle of determining news is key, because it is this very principle that has guided majority of the mass media not only during the papal controversy, but also during the conflicts that have occurred in the recent past.

So, inevitably, the entire world knows that Christian holy sites have been destroyed in West Bank and Gaza, that a missionary nun in Somalia has been shot, that threats have been made against the Vatican, etc. That this should make the news is not a point of contention.

But how many people know that mainstream Muslims all over the world, a majority by any standards, have rejected and condemned these acts as disgusting and un-Islamic? That Muslim leaders worldwide, including Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, have respectfully expressed regrets regarding the Pope’s comments, and welcomed his apology? That the Muslims in power in Mogadishu, Somalia, have vowed to bring justice to those who murdered the nun? That the Council on American Islamic Relations (CAIR) is raising money to help repair the damaged churches? That major Muslim organizations in America, such as the Muslim American Society (MAS), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA), and CAIR have immediately called for interfaith dialogue? That, as part of this call, Muslims and Catholics in California, including those in the Bay Area, have taken steps to reaffirm the peaceful ties that they’ve held for years?

The list is not exhaustive. But how many people are aware of this? Not many, because the violent response makes the news, the nonviolent does not, or at least not often enough. This is why Parker’s argument does not hold, because she has focused on a small aspect of the response alone, basing her conclusion on that. And indeed we cannot completely blame her, because the media at large have done the same. This is not to suggest that we ignore that aspect completely, but that we shed light on other aspects too, those that are mainstream and reconciliatory, so that people may shape informed conclusions.

Perhaps it is time to reexamine the principle: “man bites dog” is newsworthy, but rules of objective reporting and comprehensive analyses dictate that “dog bites man” deserves attention too, even if it is the norm. Or actually, in light of current political conflicts, precisely because it is the norm.

  CAIR has 32 offices and chapters nationwide and in Canada. Its mission is to enhance understanding of Islam, encourage dialogue, protect civil liberties, empower American Muslims, and build coalitions that promote justice and mutual understanding.