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How much criticism does NewsChannel 5 really deserve for its "Islamville" pair of stories aired last week? The station's news operation came under heavy fire both for the report itself--Pith's Jeff Woods called it
"a new low in TV journalism"--and for the story's possible role inciting vandalism
at a Nashville mosque.
Judging NewsChannel 5's actions purely by the content of the actual stories it aired, there is little here that one would label seriously inappropriate or unethical. In part one
reporter Nick Beres describes the wingnut "Homegrown Jihad" video, which names a Muslim village in Stewart County as a possible Islamic extremist training site, and interviews a couple of religious leaders in Nashville. He closes the piece in a helicopter flying over the village with this ominous tease for his actual visit in part two: "Is this a terrorist training camp or a quiet trailer park?...You may be surprised to see what we learned." Part two
chronicles a rather pedestrian visit to what turns out to be a rather pedestrian place. Beres' date for the journey is Stewart County Sheriff John Vinson, who describes the experience of entering the compound as "kind of like going into any trailer park in the country."
In a form email to viewers (posted
by a Pith commenter) who complained about the piece after the vandalism incident happened, Channel 5 News Director Sandy Boonstra justified doing the story in the first place as an effort to substantiate or dispel rumors about the Stewart County compound. Given that the fringe video spreading those rumors was getting some play in area churches, this was a not unreasonable motivation to look into the matter, although the piece should have identified more specifically how and where the video was circulating here. And Boonstra's summary claim that the reports they aired "were fair and informative" holds up -- at least for those parts of the story that actually reported on the news crew's visit to the compound, which came off as low-key, respectful, and informative.
But Boonstra trafficks in some serious disingenuousness by ignoring how the station pitched and framed the pieces it ran. On-air promotional teases made it sound as though an investigative report would unveil provocative evidence of possible Islamic terrorism germinating in middle Tennessee. The lead-in segment in part two was plainly calculated to pump up the volume with gratuitous war-on-terror file footage. Boonstra underscored the hypocrisy separating the actual story from the way it was packaged when she wrote in her email to complaining viewers:
I do not believe we put anyone in danger because of our stories. The community has been there for more than 20 years. People know where they are. The local authorities know where they are. The FBI knows where they are.
If she knew this to be true, then why tease the piece and label the story video as an inside look at a "secret Muslim community"? It was fundamentally dishonest to have your reporter discover that there is nothing secret about it -- the sheriff made it clear that its existence has been known for years--and then promote it as a report on a "secret" community.
It was also poor journalism for the station in its own reporting
on the mosque vandalism to ignore the substantial local conversation and controversy about whether the NewsChannel 5 story might have played a role. As Pith reported
, one of the mid-state's major immigrant rights groups issued a statement to the press noting that the vandalism was "particularly troubling as it comes on the heels of a sensationalist report by NewsChannel 5."
Blaming the press for imbecilic actions perpetrated by idiots who may or may not have had specific knowledge of some particular news story is a tenuous business, one that risks chilling aggressive reporting on hot-button issues. Even so, in this case NewsChannel 5's irresponsible approach to packaging and promoting the report made reasonable people sense a connection, and so the station unavoidably became part of the story. Its ensuing failure to acknowledge and report on that angle, and to seek to dispel its own culpability publicly, was a further journalistic whiff.
Bottom line: This was a reasonable story to pursue, and one worth airing to dispel ugly rumors circulating in area churches. The reporting itself that made it on the air was for the most part even-keeled and informative. The promotion for it, on the other hand, was anything but. Once the station's reporter learned first-hand in the field that there was no 'there' there, a responsible and professional news organization might still have run the piece but would have moderated the emotional volume associated with it, not amplified it into something calculated to whip up nativist fury.