New York Times, Authors Oversimplify in “Muslim Journalist” Op-Ed

New York Times, Authors Oversimplify in “Muslim Journalist” Op-Ed

by Christian Christensen

On February 12, the New York Times Interactive published an “Op-Chart” (a form of Op-Ed) piece by Lawrence Pintak and Syed Javed Nazir entitled, Inside the Muslim (Journalist’s) Mind.  What followed was the presentation of a series of charts and graphs, indicating the opinions and sentiments of Pakistani journalists on a range of political issues (“The Greatest Threat Facing Pakistan Today,” “View of the U.S.,” “Religion”). The results came from “a nationwide survey of 395 Pakistani journalists, supported by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund.” The results of the study were in part expected, in part surprising (such as the fact that roughly 20% of the respondents did not consider either the 2008 Mumbai hotel attacks or the savage execution of U.S. journalist Daniel Pearl to be acts of “terrorism”).

The graphs and charts were pretty, and the results probably made for good water-cooler chat at the office on Monday morning. The  problem is that the piece was flawed.

Where to begin? How about with the headline: Inside the Muslim (Journalist’s) Mind? One should  almost congratulate the New York Times and the authors for managing to generate a headline that managed to be so bad on so many different levels. As the authors note, the study was based upon a survey of 395 journalists in Pakistan. The population of Pakistan is roughly 170 million, which likely would have made the sample acceptable had the headline been, Inside the Pakistani (Journalist’s) Mind. The article, however, claims to give us insight into the Muslim journalist’s mind (whatever that means). So, these 395 journalists from Pakistan (only half of whom, incidentally, used the term “Muslim” as their primary form of self-identification) will represent journalists from a global Muslim population of just under 1.6 billion, or roughly a quarter of the world’s population? Taking away the half who identified themselves as something other than Muslim, that leaves us with 200 journalists in Pakistan who will give us insight into the minds of tens, if not hundreds of thousands of their fellow “Muslim” scribes.

Given the title of the article (and statements such as, “as the United States broadens its effort to win the hearts and minds of Muslims, it would do well to look into the heads of the journalists who shape opinions in those societies”) the authors are clearly suggesting that the responses given by the journalists in the survey are a function of their being Muslim.  Why and how Pintak and Nazir draw this conclusion is a mystery.

In the survey, the journalists were asked to give their views on the United States. 52% of the respondents had a favorable opinion of the U.S. in general and 76% had a favorable opinion of American people, but only 23% had  favorable opinion of U.S. foreign policy and 84% felt that the U.S. was “unjustly meddling in Pakistani politics.” So, we are to  believe that it is religion that has influenced these figures? Not educational background. Not personal history. Not political affiliation. Not income. Not gender. Not age. Not geographic location. Religion.  84% of journalists surveyed feel that the U.S should not meddle in domestic Pakistani affairs? Citizens of a country not liking the idea that their domestic politics are influenced by outside actors? And how, exactly, can that be linked to religion? If religion is not the issue, then why trumpet it in the title of the piece and spotlight religious affiliation as a key factor in the very first chart?

Ironically, the authors sow the seeds of doubt regarding their work via their own data. If we take the aforementioned figures that 77% of journalists disapprove of U.S. foreign policy, and 84% think that the U.S. should stay out of Pakistani politics, that means that even if every single journalist who identified himself/herself as a Muslim first and foremost (51% of the sample) took these positions, this would mean that 50% of those who did NOT define themselves as Muslim also disapprove of U.S. foreign policy, and 70% of those who did NOT define themselves as Muslim also feel the U.S. should stay out of domestic affairs. So, what conclusions can we draw from that? Without more information about the respondents and the myriad (unstated) factors influencing their opinion…not much.

And herein lies the crux of the problem: the common assumption (buried, in this case, under decontextualized statistics) that when someone identifies themselves as a Muslim (or is identified by someone else as a Muslim), then that identification trumps all other personal, political, economic, ideological, sociological or philosophical factors. By this I do not mean it trumps other identifications (that is a personal choice), but I  mean that Muslim dogma is regularly posited as squashing all other potential intellectual influences. To take this perspective to its logical conclusion, it is impossible for self-identified “Muslims” to be true critical thinkers,as their very ontology is dominated by their theological orientation. If the authors of this piece disagree with that analysis, then I would ask why the variable of being a Muslim is even relevant in this study? Why label “Muslim journalists” (in a headline in one of the most influential newspapers in the world) on the basis of 200 responses? What was the point? Would we be as willing to accept an article from Dublin entitled, Inside the Christian (Journalist’s) Mind? If not, it’s worth asking ourselves why, and why we do accept it in the case of Muslims.

When influential newspapers such as the New York Times publish pieces like this, they must be held to account. If the authors and the New York Times are genuinely interested in developing knowledge regarding how and why citizens of foreign countries see the U.S. and U.S. policies, then including recognitions that economic and political life is complex, and that people are products of more than just religious labels, are good places to start.

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About chrchristensen
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden.

One Response to New York Times, Authors Oversimplify in “Muslim Journalist” Op-Ed

  1. There is a certain irony when someone whose work is focused on driving home to Westerners that Islam is not a monolith finds a headline on one of his own pieces that implies exactly the opposite on one of his own pieces.

    You are absolutely correct. A survey of Pakistani journalists does not (necessarily) provide any insight into Muslims (journalist or otherwise) as a whole. If you contribute at all to non-academic media, you will know that headlines are – unfortunately – written by editors, not those who write the article. I was not pleased that it was not vetted with me before going to print.

    In fact, the Pakistan survey was part of an ongoing survey of journalists across the Muslim world and, as hypothesized, I am finding dramatic variations on journalists in different regions.

    However, your assumption that because about half gave their primary identity as Muslim only half the sample was Muslim is, likewise, falling into a trap of assumptions. In fact, about 96 percent of those responding were Muslims (and, of those, about 2/3 self-identified as “religious” Muslims, as opposed to those self-identifying as “secular”). Just because they do not consider their primary identity to me Muslim does not mean they do not consider themselves Muslims.

    The subtleties we can tackle in an 8,000 word journal article are, naturally, lost in a 250-word newspaper article, which is, of course, why we write those articles. There is a more nuanced journal version in the works. See also the article in the April issue of the Intl Journal of Press/Politics on our survey of journalists in Indonesia.

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