NOW THAT AMERICAN REPORTERS INCREASINGLY are covering Islam, will most be able to get beyond press releases and provide context for what they are told? A little test I've done, to complement the broader research provided in this special issue, suggests that the answer is no.
The test concerned an incident first reported well over 3,000 years ago. Chapter 22 of Genesis tells of Abraham almost sacrificing his son Isaac. Muslims, though, believe that the Bible is wrong, and when they celebrated last month the Eid al-Adha holiday that commemorates the event, they told reporters that Abraham nearly killed his oldest son, Ishmael.
That created an interesting test of journalistic evenhandedness. Newspapers had the choice of (A) reporting the Muslim version of the sacrifice and pointing out that the Jewish and Christian version long preceded it, (B) reporting the Muslim version and also noting the Jewish and Christian version, (C) reporting the Muslim version as a version, but not necessarily as fact, and not mentioning the alternative, or (D) reporting the Muslim version of the event as objective fact.
My Lexis-Nexis search found 25 stories from Feb. 8 through 13 that included the words "Abraham" and "sacrifice" in relation to Eid al-Adha. Journalists who chose A would be providing the fullest account. Reporters could also be evenhanded by selecting B. Even C, although incomplete, is an accurate report of what Muslims believe. But D-stating emphatically that Ishmael was the intended victim and not even mentioning the Jewish or Christian understanding-seems an unlikely choice for a well-informed, evenhanded reporter.
First set of results: None of the stories fell into category A. Five were in category B. The Tulsa World on Feb. 8 noted the key difference: "The Quran, the holy book of Islam, relates that God commanded Abraham to sacrifice his first born, Ishmael, then stayed his hand before the sacrifice was made and provided a lamb for the sacrifice. The Bible of the Christians and Jews tells a similar story, but it records that it was Abraham's younger son, Isaac, not Ishmael, who was about to be sacrificed."
The Associated Press on Feb. 12 was more succinct: "The Quran, the Islamic scripture, says it was Abraham's son Ishmael who was spared by God's order, while the Bible says it was Isaac."
Four stories were in category C, at least noting that the Ishmael-sacrifice story had a Muslim source. For example, the (Salt Lake City) Deseret News on Feb. 11 noted, "According to Islamic scripture, Abraham loved God so much that he would have sacrificed his son Ishmael; God revealed his love for Abraham by giving him a ram to sacrifice instead."
The New York Times on Feb. 12 reported on "God's last-minute command to Abraham to slaughter a sheep instead of his son Ishmael. The Muslim holy book, the Quran, says God wanted to test Abraham's faith by ordering him to sacrifice his son." The Feb. 11 (Fort Lauderdale) Sun-Sentinel deserves an honorable mention for noting that the identification of the boy as Ishmael is not in the Quran-that's the spelling Muslims prefer-but in the Hadith, collections of Muhammad sayings and stories.
Fifteen stories were in category D, with newspapers such as the Dallas Morning News (on Feb. 8) stating, as if fact, "the Prophet Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God's command." The Rochester Democrat and Chronicle mixed scriptures on Feb. 12 by noting that "The feast commemorates the willingness of the biblical patriarch Abraham to sacrifice his son Ishmael to Allah before an angel intervenes." But the biblical patriarch did not sacrifice Ishmael; only the Quranic version of Abraham did.
Newspapers from all over the United States-the Tucson Citizen, the (Lafayette, Ind.) Journal and Courier, the (Riverside, Calif.) Press-Enterprise, Fort Collins Coloradoan, the (Monroe, La.) News-Star, the Arizona Republic-all reported without sourcing what the Austin American-Statesman on Feb. 12 called "Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Ishmael at God's command."
So here's the bottom line: 60 percent of the newspapers offered the Muslim version as if it were objective fact. Only one in five newspapers noted the existence of a biblical story that is older than and different from the Islamic story. Incidentally, Agence France Presse also described "the Prophet Abraham's readiness to obey God by sacrificing his son Ishmael." But shouldn't we know more than the French?