‘He Is Not a Victim’: Our Austin Bomber Coverage Explained
Many news organizations, including our own, came under criticism from some readers last week for coverage of the bombings in and near Austin, Tex. Some said The Times’s initial reporting on the suspect, Mark Conditt, treated him too lightly or did too much to humanize him because he was white and Christian.
We invited readers to share with us their questions or comments on the reporting. We heard from about 2,000 readers. We’re running a selection of their questions with some responses from our journalists below. The questions have been condensed and edited for clarity.
Please see this as the start of a conversation. We welcome you to leave additional remarks in the comments section of this article.
Definition of Terrorism
What are your criteria for defining some crimes as “terrorism?” — Samih Kareem, Sudan
When the U.S. government calls something “terrorism” or “not terrorism,” how critically do you examine the word? — Stephen Dockery, Berkeley, Calif.
Marc Lacey, National Editor: The Times typically follows the lead of law enforcement for when to label a particular crime as terrorism, given that it has a specific legal definition.
As we’ve seen, law enforcement does not always apply the formal term terrorism to acts of mass violence.
In the San Bernardino, Calif., shooting that killed 14 people, law enforcement officials called Tashfeen Malik and Syed Rizwan Farook terrorists. The same was true in Orlando, Fla., where Omar Mateen killed 49 people at a nightclub.
But in Charleston, S.C., where Dylann Roof murdered nine African-Americans at a historically black church, law enforcement did not label him a terrorist. The same was true in Las Vegas, where Stephen Paddock killed 58 people at a concert.
Under the law, terrorism is a violent, criminal act intended to intimidate civilians and governments for an ideological, political or religious purpose. In this case, we have yet to see evidence that the attacks in Texas were politically motivated, though certainly there has been suspicion that there was racial animus because the first two victims were African-American.
Anne Barnard, Beirut Bureau Chief: The words “terrorist” and “terrorism” are problematic because there is no universal consensus on what they mean. Thus, the decision to label an attack or attacker “terrorist” is almost always at least partly a political judgment.
Contradictions and debates abound over which groups governments list as terrorist and which they don’t. Some examples: The United States’ main partner against the Islamic State in Syria is a Kurdish militia listed as terrorist by a critical NATO ally, Turkey. Hezbollah, which is listed as a terrorist group by the United States government, is also a political party represented in Lebanon’s Parliament. And some groups argue that when a government deliberately bombs civilians, that too should be called terrorism.
It strikes me that in media coverage in general, “terrorism” is often used as if it were a synonym for “Islamist extremist violence.” That grates on me: Terrorism — whatever your working definition is — is a method, not an ideology. It’s a method that could be used, and has been used in history, to further a wide spectrum of different ideologies.
For these reasons, I try to avoid using the terms terrorist and terrorism at all, unless they are inside quotation marks or refer to a government’s decision to place a group on its designated terrorist list.
During all these years of wrestling with how to cover violence, I have found it more precise and informative to simply describe exactly what the attack was — how it was done, how many people it killed, whether there is a known or suspected motive — rather than label it terrorist or not. What’s most important is what crime was committed and what its impact was.
Calling a Black Child a Man
Why do you (and other outlets) keep referring to Draylen Mason as a man? He was a 17-year-old boy or teen. Calling him a man somehow feels like an effort to desensitize people to his loss. — Anne, Spokane, Wash.
Marc Lacey, National Editor: I agree with you that, at the age of 17, Draylen Mason was a child, a teenager, one who had a promising future as a musician, as we noted here. There were two instances in which we referred to him as a man. Both were later updated. I appreciate your raising this issue.
Treatment of White Suspects
He is not the victim! When a POC is the victim they are treated far worse than this “godly boy” whom we are lucky didn’t kill more people with his bombs. Imagine if he was Muslim. — Tyrone Dockery
When it’s a white kid, we are quick to throw out the “misguided” or “severely disturbed” or whatever linkage to their mental state — TBunkNasty
Why are you bending over backwards to try and concoct an image of this evil, hateful killer? Asking neighbors, friends, family for their biased, inaccurate, or revisionist opinions of the killer and his motives does nothing except insult the good people he KILLED. — Bruce, Seattle
Marc Lacey, National Editor: I agree with readers on this point — that the only victims in this story are the ones Mark Conditt killed and injured. He is not a victim.
After such events, we journalists write profiles of the perpetrators of such attacks as we try to understand their backgrounds and what may have motivated them. Here’s one such piece we did on Omar Mateen and another on Dylann Roof.
We wrote of Micah Johnson, who killed five police officers and wounded seven others in Dallas in 2016: “There was a time when he was known as a well-mannered young man — a regular at his church and a pleasant presence on a tree-lined, suburban, multicultural street in a neighborhood called Camelot. He grew up to serve his country in Afghanistan.” He was African-American.
When it comes to Mark Conditt, we’ll continue reporting on what motivated these awful acts and we’ll share what we find. I have not a twinge of sympathy for him, and readers are right that our coverage should not leave the impression he was victimized.
Language Used in a Tweet
Why did you highlight this bomber as “nerdy” and coming from a “godly family” in a tweet? Do these things make him less of a murderer? Do you see how this reads as, screams of white privilege. — Regina Reichert, Detroit
Cynthia Collins, Social Media Editor: As a practice, we use Twitter to highlight new details as they emerge on stories that are continuing to develop.
People had been actively seeking updates on the Austin investigation. Our article had just updated to include interviews with the suspect’s neighbors. We tweeted quotes from one of these interviews to share another element of our emerging profile of the suspect.
We probably shouldn’t have published a tweet describing how the suspect’s neighbors and peers viewed him without also providing the immediate and necessary contrast that he is suspected of killing Anthony Stephan House and Draylen Mason, and critically injuring others.
Treatment of Muslim Victims and Suspects
The social and mental state of the perpetrator are in fact important as they help to explain how someone who may seem as normal as you and I, would one day wake up and commit what we view as inexplicable acts.
However, it defies all logic and rules out all objectivity to discard this side of the argument/narrative when you are dealing with a brainwashed, deranged Muslim radical.
All terrorists are the same in my eye, and they should be in yours too. — Ramadan Duadu, Dublin
Anne Barnard, Beirut Bureau Chief: This too has its echo in the Middle East. We do try our best to delve into the stories, perspectives and contexts of both victims and perpetrators. It’s not always possible, because of access issues. But at the same time, in the media in general there is a dynamic in which the more bombings happen in a place, the more they come to seem routine and not newsworthy, a thing that “just happens over there” (unless that place is the United States or Europe). This distorts the fact that the vast majority of victims of Islamist extremist violence are Muslims.
The war in Syria now gets such little attention that people in the region often ask: Does the West think it’s O.K. for us to go through this? Do we not count as full humans?
After a spate of bombings in mostly Muslim countries around the world, I talked with Michel Kilo, a Syrian dissident, in Paris. He was leaning wearily over his coffee at a Left Bank cafe, wondering: Where was the global outrage?
Where was the outpouring that came after the same terrorist groups unleashed horror in Brussels and in Paris? In a supposedly globalized world, do nonwhites, non-Christians and non-Westerners count as fully human?
I believe one of our jobs as journalists is to demonstrate the common humanity of people whose lives may on the surface look very different from one another, to approach every human being as an individual and to treat every life as equally valuable and interesting. It’s an ideal that we can’t always live up to, but we must work toward especially as we attempt to reach an expanding and increasingly diverse global audience.
Covering Black Victims
Why did you wait so long — 20 days and 10 days respectively — to publish profiles of the African-American victims of the bombings? — Joel Charny, Washington
Marc Lacey, National Editor: We published information on the victims in Austin as soon as we gathered it. The correspondents assigned to this story went more than once to the victims’ families to try to tell more complete stories about them.
In each case, the families were too traumatized, understandably, to let us in. We wrote what we could from the sidelines. We remain committed to pursuing this, because the story of such a loss is never over. Here is one piece on those who died.
Details of a Suspect’s Life
I realize that reporting on pieces like the March 22 “A Bomber’s Rampage Exposes Racial Fault Lines” article takes considerably more time than getting quotes from neighbors and classmates, but you MUST consider what good those easy quotes do. Do they tell us anything we need to know, or are you just trying to get anything out in order to take advantage of the news cycle? — Garrett Bridger Gilmore, Long Beach, Calif.
I really don’t care what the bomber’s hobbies were, or what his grandmother thought of him, or whether he was “quiet.” I want to know when and where he was radicalized. I want to know how he learned to make effective killing machines and how he was able to obtain parts and send the first few bombs practically undetected. If that information is still unavailable, perhaps run 100 percent fewer human interest stories on his childhood and wait, or better yet, investigate. — Anna Holmes, Seattle
Marc Lacey, National Editor: With an event of this magnitude, with consequences so horrific, The Times made the decision to give four correspondents in Austin and four others in New York one assignment: Find out anything possible about this perpetrator and help us understand how he could have committed these terrible acts.
We fanned out through his neighborhood, school, worksite and anywhere else we could identify, trying to talk to anyone we could find who knew him. We published everything we learned, as we learned it. A story that was sketchy at first was expanded as we went along, filling in new details as we learned them.
We’re still working to understand this perpetrator, and as we learn more, we’ll pass it along. I can assure you that there is no effort underway to portray him as anything other than what he is, a murderer.
I have seen pictures of Mark Conditt with the blond hair he had at the time. And holding an assault rifle. Why hasn’t that one been used? — David B. Owens, Chicago
The photographs used to show suspects is one of the ways that can show racial bias. For example, even in this request for questions, a Facebook photo of Mark Conditt is used rather than an image from video surveillance. In comparison, it is common to see mug shots when discussing people of color. How does The Times evaluate photo choices and is this sort of racial bias specifically considered? — Alison, Apex, N.C.
Crista Chapman, National Photo Editor: The photo of the suspect that we published was the only one that was confirmed at the time by the wire services that we subscribe to. We were unable to independently confirm other photos that allegedly showed Mark Conditt holding an assault rifle, including the photo referenced by the reader.
There were also no police mug shots available of Mr. Conditt because he had not previously been arrested.
We did subsequently publish surveillance video screenshots of Mr. Conditt at the FedEx location when the photos were made available.
What is your plan to hire and promote more people of color and non-Christian reporters? — Emily Peterson, Oakland, Calif.
What controls do you have in place to check for implicit bias? How many people of color do you have in supervisory/editorial positions? — Kate E, Central New York
Carolyn Ryan, Assistant Managing Editor: We have aggressively pushed to recruit more people of color, and last year, more than a third of our newsroom hires were people of color, and 60 percent were women. We have also introduced changes to our interview and hiring process to make sure we are selecting people from a diverse pool of candidates and using an interview process that has been developed to eliminate bias.
We’ve also expanded our outreach to underrepresented groups, partnering with organizations dedicated to diversity in technology (e.g. Code2040), journalism (e.g. National Association of Black Journalists) and media (e.g. The Emma Bowen Foundation). And every year, we run a Student Journalism Institute that provides training for diverse groups of college students interested in pursuing a career in journalism.
Anne Barnard, Beirut Bureau Chief: As a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, I see firsthand how important it is that The Times continue to diversify its reporting and editing staff. We need to reflect not only the makeup of our core audience in the United States but also the communities we cover by including more people with the appropriate language skills and cultural literacy.
This is important for the accuracy, fairness and richness of our journalism. The same is true of the need to diversify people in the most powerful, decision-making positions at The Times.
Why Ask These Questions
Honestly to even ask this question [“How do you see racial and religious bias playing out in news coverage?”] is a farce as if you cannot see the writing on the wall. Black and Muslim people have said this for years. To ask this is like you have not been paying attention. How do we see it play out? Open your eyes. — Hannah Drake
Hanna Ingber, Reader Center’s Editorial Director: Thank you for your comment. I see how it came across that way and do understand where you’re coming from.
We invited readers to submit questions and comments because we want to be more transparent, and we believe it’s important to have an open conversation with our readers about these issues. We are listening to our readers’ feedback and concerns, and we want our audience to know that.
Additional Reader Points
In responding to the reader submissions, our journalists focused on questions related to our Austin coverage. But many of our readers posed important and thoughtful questions that went far beyond the Austin story. Questions touched on coverage of past news events by The Times, media coverage from various news organizations and even racial and religious discrimination in society as a whole.
While we don’t have answers for many of these questions, they are worth all of us thinking about and keeping in our mind going forward. Here is a selection.
It’s almost nonexistent for news media to use flattering images of people of color in crime reporting, even if that person is innocent or the victim. — R. A. Rodriguez
The coverage is ABSOLUTELY different for White Christian attackers. Had the Austin terrorist been Muslim, there would have been national hysteria. It’s a double standard and must be called out every time. — Hesham Hassaballa, Chicago
Trayvon Martin was murdered by an over-excited wannabe security guard because he was black and walking through the neighborhood, but somehow the NYT had to tell us all that he’d had trouble at school for pot. The photos of him that were posted weren’t the smiling, friendly sort, like the one posted of Mark Conditt, but was of him in a hoodie, trying to look tough. — Laura Kenney, Traverse City, Mich.
You literally have harder hitting profiles of black murder victims than of white Christian serial killers. — Dylan Brady, Eugene, Ore.
I often see coverage of violent criminals who are Muslim include reactions from the leader or members of their religious community. It is not often asked of Christian faith leaders how the sins of their congregant reflect on the congregation or Christians at large. — Angelo M. Pinto, Audubon, N.J.
Whenever any sort of mass murder is perpetuated by someone from the “other” category, the entire community is dragged onto the public forum with only one expectation — own it and repent.— Nish Patel, Boston
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