What the 'Ground Zero mosque' flap says about the state of journalism

The Ground Zero mosque does not exist.

There is, of course, the planned Park51 Muslim community center and mosque, which local authorities approved for construction on Park Place in lower Manhattan about two blocks, or about 600 feet, from Ground Zero.

And there is also, of course, a myth – the latest outrage brand- of a “Ground Zero mosque.” Headlines from dozens of outlets have trumpeted that three-word shorthand, tempered at best by the flimsy embrace of quotation marks. Yet the phrase “Ground Zero mosque” violates the most basic tenets of journalism: be truthful and be accurate.

So what’s false? Simple: the mosque in question will not be built at Ground Zero. To conflate the lingering psychological toll of the destroyed World Trade Center with a building 600 feet away is as absurd as calling the Lace Gentlemen’s Club on 7th Avenue in Manhattan the “Fox News Strip Club” by virtue of its two-block proximity to Fox’s headquarters.

Speaking to Michael Calderone at Yahoo News, AP New York assistant chief Chad Roedemeier said that the slug on the story has always been “Ground Zero mosque,” and that phrase has often appeared in headlines. But he said the wire service has always said the mosque was “near” ground zero in stories. (I used to work as a freelance photographer with the AP in New York City.)

That distinction isn’t good enough in an age of six-word iPhone headlines, warp speed online skimming, and well-financed PR and political hucksters trying to smoke-bomb plain languge. Whether it’s birthers, Breitbart, or BP, there will always be cynical and reductive operators trying to exploit the uninformed in the age of too much information. The question is why responsible news media doesn’t fight as aggressively to reframe stories with the facts.

Our brains, like search engines, gauge information on a hierarchy, prioritizing headlines and the active nouns and verbs they employ. Copy further down in the story or watery qualifiers like “near” or “so-called” don’t stick in our brains as much, nor do they help a website climb the SEO ladder.

Yes, we all skim. And no, it’s not the job of a journalist to stand over the consumer’s shoulder to make sure he or she reads to the end. Nonetheless, a basic standard of factual accuracy like “tell the truth about a location” should be self-evident, or else media outlets are no better then performance art.

But let’s go even further: responsible media outlets needs to stiffen their ethical spine and take a more active role in ignoring or correcting manipulative catchphrases. A story whipped up by a group called ‘Stop Islamization of America,’ like blocking the construction of Park51, should not have an even playing field with a more sober truth because of false or tricky language. Yet right now, the language manipulators are on a winning streak.

Last year’s “death panels” (there was no such thing) fit a headline far more easily than Atul Gawande’s nuanced and moving 12,000 words on end of life care. We’re now hearing about “terror babies” despite the fact that they don’t exist either. There are dozens of other examples.

Media ethics today fight a fierce riptide. Online media’s economic success depends on page views and click-through rates that in turn depend on the most blunt, emotionally engaging subjects. That’s a powerful incentive to create controversy.

“Not all words have equal meaning,” Frank Luntz, who coined dozens of phrases such as “death tax,” told the New York Times Magazine in May 2009. The PR executives, activists and politicians recognize that fact, and will continue to exploit it until news media outlets robustly resist. Let’s hope that day comes soon.

About Brian McDermott

In September 2009, Brian joined the journalism faculty at the University of Massachusetts Amherst full-time. He teaches classes in photojournalism, video journalism, and web design.


  1. Brian,
    I agree with your underlying premise that words matter, but language use and abuse cuts both ways.
    I’ve followed reporting on this issue pretty closely and recall a spate of stories and posts saying “it’s not a mosque, it’s a community center.” Those I guess got skinned back somewhat when it was confirmed there would be a mosque within the community center.
    Everybody picks words to frame their thesis.
    In your post, you say it’s 600 feet away. That sounds far.
    But saying 200 yards would sound less far and “two football fields” would sound really close.
    Rhetorically, this particular question seems to hinge on what defines Ground Zero.
    Is it the cleared area where the twin towers stood? Or is it a larger area of buildings that sustained damage in the attack?
    By the first definition, the mosque is out. By the second, it’s in (as far as I can tell, it’s undisputed that the community center and mosque building was in fact damaged in the 9-11 attack).
    I’m not taking sides, I’m just pointing out that it’s rhetorically not absolutely cut and dried because we’re dealing in imprecise terms to start with.

  2. says:

    it depends on whose ox is being gored. the author reveals his own bias, not that of headline writers. i must admit to being conflicted on the mosque issue, but have no qualms about use of the term ‘ground zero mosque’ in a headline, but explanatory copy would be helpful.

  3. And these comments explain why mainstream journalism continues to fail the public.

    C’mon, folks, “ground zero” means the footprint of the towers, not all of Lower Manhattan. (And there have been mosques in Lower Manhattan for years, by the way.)

    This is primarily a community center. There’s a design for a prayer room in it, which makes it a mosque like a prayer breakfast makes my local YMCA into a church.

    Let’s be honest, because our non-industry readers deserve it. This controversy is a designed campaign, ginned up by certain elements within the right wing in this country (especially those broadcasting on Fox News), to stir up anti-Islam sentiment in this country. It is a campaign meant to divide, not to inform. And the use of “ground zero mosque” in mainstream news reports plays into that, for the reasons Brian describes above.

    Let’s also stop being naive: the origin of this campaign, and its motivation and intent, is *far* more newsworthy than this ginned-up campaign itself.

  4. You only have 1/2 of the issue here. Yes, it’s true that it’s not at ground zero but you should also not forget that it’s not a mosque either. It’s a community center.

  5. says:

    “The question is why responsible news media doesn’t fight as aggressively to reframe stories with the facts.”

    That sir, is indeed the main question. But the question offers an implication: responsible news media are being irresponsible.

    This isn’t a rhetorical question you ask. It is one in which responsible journalists within a responsible media industry ought to fully investigate and produce an informative report.

    There are a limited number of national media. And many regional and local media that subscribe to the AP often regurgitate whatever the AP has to say on a news story.

    The national news media (newspapers, TV, radio and Internet) often follow suit in spreading news to the vast majority of media audiences.

    An investigation into which media promote the erroneous (and irresponsible) notion of “Ground Zero” and “mosque” will also lead directly to the names of editors, whose identification could be listed in a report that places them squarely in the center of a national spotlight of scrutiny.

    Until editors are held directly responsible, this sort of crap journalism will continue. We can always yell “Fox News” at the top of our criticism of media, but even that merely points an accusing finger at a brand, not a person.

    No amount of finger-pointing at the Fox News brand has succeeded in degrading its value and ability to attract audiences and advertising revenue. The process of criticizing brands is futile.

    The process of criticizing people and holding them accountable for the pollution they pour out into the public is the missing element in righting the wayward media vessel that has veered off course.

  6. says:

    I think “two football fields” in a city setting sounds farther than 600 feet.