Visual Literacy

The recent arrests in Canada of a suspected Muslim Terrorist group have generated some remarkable politically correct reporting. I’m not talking about the reports treating the suspects as innocent until proven guilty. That is fine, and as it should be. I’m talking about the press avoiding discussing the suspected terrorists Muslim identity and jihadi ideology. Jeff Jarvis at Buzzmachine which does a lot of astute media criticism, catches the New York Times doing some remarkably poor reporting. (Ironically, I have recently written about them doing some exemplary reporting lately here.)

Here is Jeff Jarvis:

When a big story breaks like, say, a major arrest foiling a frightening terrorist plot in peaceful Canada the first question anyone wants to know is who?. Who did it? That is, after all, the first of journalisms five Ws: who, what, when, where, why (and how).

But The New York Times on my doorstep this morning didnt bother answering the who question in its story today until a spare mention of Islamic in the 22nd paragraph and Muslim in the 31st and even those were not terribly informative. In the fifth paragraph, the suspects were merely mainly of South Asian descent. India? Burma? Thailand? Indian? Southeast? Southwest? French-speaking terrorists from Vietnam coming to join their Quebecois confrres, perhaps? Whos to know?

The Times wasnt the only one. I heard the report on radio and they didnt answer the first W, either. This is not journalism. Journalism answers the most basic questions, especially the tough ones.

A later story in The Times used the word mosque in the lead. Well, that helps.

As I followed this story up the Times was evidently outdone by the Toronto Star (Web edition) who led with the following opening paragraph:

In investigators’ offices, an intricate graph plotting the links between the 17 men and teens charged with being members of a homegrown terrorist cell covers at least one wall. And still, says a source, it is difficult to find a common denominator. (emphasis added)

The print edition handles it differently, but the same phrase is prominently displayed above the main story. Little Green Footballs got a picture of the actual paper edition which you can view by clicking on the thumbnail. (Go ahead, have a look – what I have to say next wont be clear unless you see it for yourself.)


(Click to enlarge)

The LGF commenters were having a great time with the avoidance of discussing the obvious common denominator until the penny finally dropped in the 38th comment:

The tone of the article seems to contradict the photo. Perhaps an editor wanted to slyly gut the authors’ hazy position by pairing it with something more … vivid…?

Well yes. That was my take the minute I saw the front page. The visual clearly trumps the written word and answers the Who? question, rather loudly, without saying a word. The caption (web edition) is innocuous of course, but the message is clear. It doesn’t say they are guilty, it just tells us who they are. Which we have a right to know.

My main question is why would journalists write a story that way? Well, I think it is a direct result of teaching history, literature, and other subjects, but especially journalism, based on postmodernism or more particularly that politicized form of postmodernism that divides the world up into ‘advantaged’ oppressor groups, and ‘disadvantaged’ or victim groups and then scrupulously avoids saying anything negative about the disadvantaged groups. Canada has gone further down this road than the US but not as far as Europe in enshrining this worldview into law. Interestingly, Canada has just thrown out a political party that strongly favored multiculturalism and the general worldview based on postmodernism. So the newspapers have to deal with racial vilification laws and have learned to operate in a legal and cultural environment that sometimes requires not saying the obvious in rather perverse and unnatural ways. In this environment I don’t think the use of the picture is a coincidence. Let me put it this way, certainly the person in the foreground with eyes sharply askance wearing the mask like garment is not reassuring to those of us who are members of the oppressor culture. We can’t know the editor’s intent, but I can easily imagine a brief smile flitting across his or her face when the possibility of using that photo presented itself.

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