Adrian Russell Ajao

Good reporting takes time: Yes, the London attacker had a complex journey into Islam

Good reporting takes time: Yes, the London attacker had a complex journey into Islam

Whenever there is an act of international terrorism, I get emails wanting to know why elite newsrooms are hesitant to connect the dots and use the word "Islam" in the initial coverage.

Well, there have been cases in which reporters have worked their way around some rather obvious, and easy to report, clues that point in that direction -- such as words shouted by the attackers, as reported by eyewitnesses. Often, journalists bury the name of the suspect it is points toward the Middle East or another majority-Islamic culture.

However, there are also cases in which these kinds of clear, on-the-record references are not initially available. At that point, you have public officials saying that they are treating the crime as an act of "international terrorism," and everyone is supposed to know what that means. You can see an example of this in the overture of an early New York Times report about the attack at Westminster Bridge.

LONDON -- A knife-wielding assailant driving a sport utility vehicle mowed down panicked pedestrians and stabbed a police officer outside Parliament on Wednesday in a deadly assault, prompting the hasty evacuation of the prime minister and punctuating the threat of terrorism in Europe.
At least four people, including the assailant, were killed and at least 40 others injured in the confusing swirl of violence, which the police said they assumed had been “inspired by international terrorism.” It appeared to be the most serious such assault in London since the deadly subway bombings more than a decade ago.

This does raise a question: Does the Associated Press Stylebook now include a reference stating that "international terrorism" is officially a reference to radicalized forms of Islam?

Of course not. It is also important that reporters not rush ahead of the facts -- even as ISIS leaders send out their social-media taunts. The bottom line for journalists: Don't hide the early evidence, but don't make assumptions, either.

It's crucial to keep reading, day after day, as journalists (and security officials) do their work. You can see this in the solid Times follow-up on that hellish attack, a lengthy feature that attempts to trace the attacker's journey into radical Islam. It's clear that officials are looking for ties to other groups, but are also being cautious.

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