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.