How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

How to turn that puff piece on Muslims loving Jesus into actual helpful, worthwhile journalism

Billboards with religious messages tend to draw tons of news media interest.

Last year, a Satanic Temple billboard protesting corporal punishment (“Our religion doesn’t believe in hitting children,” it said) rankled a South Texas town, as I reported for Religion News Service.

Other headline-making billboards have insulted Muhammad, promoted a traditional view of marriage and characterized the story of Jesus’ birth as a fairy tale.

Now, “Jesus in Islam” billboards put up in the Phoenix area are in the news.

Here is the lede from the Arizona Republic:

What do Muslims think of Jesus? It's a question Dr. Sabeel Ahmed said he gets often.

To help educate people on the significance of Jesus in Islam, Ahmed's group, The Humanitarians, a Muslim interfaith organization, is launching a monthlong campaign that includes billboards along high-trafficked areas in Arizona along with radio ads.

Ahmed, the group's founder and outreach coordinator, said the intent is to highlight similarities between Islam and Christianity and bring people together during the holidays. 

"We want to educate people on who we (Muslims) are and who we are not and show people that there are more similarities between the faiths than differences," Ahmed said Tuesday during a news conference at the Islamic Community Center of Tempe.

So Ahmed’s group bought the billboards in hopes of generating positive buzz in the community and the newspaper.

Mission accomplished, at least as far as the newspaper goes.

Keep reading, and you’ll discover that this story is the epitome of a puff piece: Group holds news conference. Reporter writes glowingly about it. Merry Christmas, everyone!

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'Buuuuuuut is it true?' Readers question reporting on billboard that has outraged Muslims

'Buuuuuuut is it true?' Readers question reporting on billboard that has outraged Muslims

In Indianapolis, a billboard that insults Muhammad — the chief prophet and central figure of the Islamic religion -- has upset local Muslims.

Those concerns made their way first to the Indianapolis Star and then to USA Today, Gannett's flagship national newspaper.

Try to spot the basic journalism question here. We are talking Reporting 101.

From USA Today:

INDIANAPOLIS — An anti-Muslim billboard disparaging the prophet Mohammed that can be seen from an Indiana highway on the east side of Indianapolis is drawing concern from local Muslims.
Now, Islamic leaders in Indianapolis are challenging those responsible for what they say are offensive and untrue statements to stand by their words, shed their anonymity and explain their motivations.
"It is a horrible billboard. I'm outraged by it, but saddened at the same time ...  and I would like to know who is behind it," said Rima Shahid, executive director of the Muslim Alliance of Indiana. "It seems very cowardly to me. If you have some kind of stance, you should want to stand up next to your statement. I didn't think there was any room for hate in our city. This billboard tells me otherwise.

While the faithful's outrage seems understandable, the quality -- or lack thereof -- of the reporting behind the news coverage itself has raised questions.

"'Buuuuuuut is it true?" was the subject line on one email received by GetReligion. In other words, are any of the statements on the billboard accurate or even topics scholars have debated in the past?

The writer said:

Being from Indy, I occasionally check in on my old city. Today I discovered this article
Now, I obviously don't think this is a productive way to start a discussion, so I'm not defending the billboard. But is it not worth even asking if the accusations in this billboard are, you know, true? I get the "people are offended by this" angle, but shouldn't a journalist seek to discover, to what extent, that offense is justified?

Another GetReligion reader -- in a Facebook message -- passed along the link to the USA Today version of the story. That reader suggested that the report could be good fodder for a critique on this journalism-focused website:

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Mennonite husband and wife say they have no hatred toward gays; media say they're 'anti-gay'

Mennonite husband and wife say they have no hatred toward gays; media say they're 'anti-gay'

According to the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, Richard and Betty Odgaard are a small-town Mennonite couple whose faith is central to their lives.

That's why, Becket says, the Odgaards kept religious elements intact when they transformed a century-old Iowa church into an art gallery, bistro and flower/gift shop where they hosted weddings.

But the couple got in trouble when they refused to participate in a same-sex wedding.

Becket says:

Through the years, the Odgaards have gladly hired gay employees and served gay customers at the Gallery’s shops and bistro but they cannot personally participate in a wedding ceremony that violates their own religious beliefs.
Although there were numerous nearby venues that actively advertise to host same-sex weddings, when the Odgaards declined to host the wedding, the couple immediately filed a complaint with the State, triggering an intense media campaign against the Odgaards. They were subjected to hate mail, boycotts, personal attacks, and even death threats. Officials in the Civil Rights Commission showed open disdain for the Odgaards’ religious rights, and even denied them access to state court to defend their religious liberty claims. Shockingly, the State refused to dismiss its case against the Odgaards even after the two men — contrary to their prior sworn statements — admitted they had been married months before asking the Odgaards to host their ceremony.
Facing growing pressure from the State and potentially years of legal proceedings, with the risk of being forced to pay the couple’s legal fees, the Odgaards chose to remain true to their faith. They settled the charges brought against them, paying thousands of dollars to the couple, and agreed to stop hosting all weddings. Without this vital income, the Odgaards were forced to close the Gallery.

Fast-forward to this week: The Odgaards are making headlines for launching a billboard campaign promoting marriage as a God-ordained union between one man and one woman.

Or, to borrow the terminology used by news organizations such as the Des Moines Register,  Religion News Service and the New York Daily News, they are erecting "anti-gay marriage" billboards:

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Hey atheists, 'Thank God you're wrong'

As a reporter, I’m always amazed by how much I learn when I actually pick up the phone and talk to somebody.

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