Innocent mistakes: a controversial film finds journalism caught between image and reality

15 May 2013

This report reviews coverage by major media in Britain, the United States, Turkey and Pakistan of the controversy over the Innocence of Muslims, a short video which came to prominence in September last year when it was uploaded to YouTube with anti-Islamic content.

The film was, by all accounts, a lowbudget and amateurish production yet it was given enormous publicity and was used to reinforce deep divisions between western and Muslim religious cultures.

Coverage of the film has raised concerns about the influence of deeply-embedded stereotypes in media reporting. In this case editorial failings, albeit inadvertently, may have reinforced prejudice and misunderstanding.

The report highlights major editorial mistakes including failure to establish the truth about the film’s origins; the uncorrected circulation of false information about the film; a lamentable lack of reporting of voices calling for peaceful and non-violent protest; and a general failure to provide context which explained the reasons for violence and who was behind it.

Many responsible media sought balance in their reporting and tried to correct their errors, but many more did not. In some countries, Pakistan for instance, some politicians openly encouraged violence and endorsed the provocative hate speech found in some sections of media.

This report, based upon extensive interviews with journalists, academics and media leaders, is narrowly focused and looks at coverage of the film in a number of sample countries - the United States, United Kingdom, Pakistan and Turkey - all of them places where terrorism and religious extremism has left its mark.

The report concludes that:

  • Online media and social networks reinforced the impact of media mistakes and played a significant role in circulating false information in the first days of the crisis. Although there were many instances of restraint and caution, both online and offline, there was a general failure to correct these damaging initial impressions;
  • Additionally, in the United States and the United Kingdom, media may have exaggerated the strength of feeling in response to the film in the Muslim community. Media in both countries struggled to provide balance in their coverage and failed to provide adequate context to explain the origins of violence;
  • In Pakistan religious parties and extremists dominated the news agenda of mass circulation, locallanguage media while moderate Muslim voices in the mainstream were largely marginalized. At the same time, senior political figures supported actions designed to encourage protest and to incite violence.
  • In Turkey media were largely uncritical as government leaders sought to use the controversy to build a platform for launching an international campaign to strengthen laws of blasphemy. The report also highlights research that shows how minority religious or activist groups from the fringes of politics receive disproportionate attention in American media.

Authored by Danica Ilic, Anser Hassan, Kamal Siddiqi and Beatrice White.

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