There is no mosque being built on the site of Ground Zero. It's a simple fact, but one that news consumers can be forgiven for missing.
In covering the growing controversy over the proposed Islamic community center in lower Manhattan, the national media, led by the big cable networks, have by default shaped the increasingly heated debate by repeatedly referring to the project as the "Ground Zero mosque." An MSNBC spokesman said that describing the project is a "show-by-show decision," while a CNN spokesperson said the network guides anchors in written copy to refer to the project as "an Islamic center that includes a mosque that is near Ground Zero, or is two blocks from Ground Zero." Of course, political pundits may stray from the network's phrasing and inaccurately describe the location of the planned building at the center of the furor.
But Phil Corbett, the New York Times' standards editor said, "Given how politically volatile this discussion has been, we think it's important to be accurate and precise," in explaining the paper's consistent references to the planned structure being two blocks from the Ground Zero site.
The "Park51" project, as it's officially dubbed, is in fact planned for a site two blocks from where the World Trade Center towers fell, amid other lower Manhattan establishments whose names have never featured the words "Ground Zero." If built, the 13-story community center and mosque project will be one of hundreds of buildings located within blocks of Ground Zero — a densely populated area that already includes a couple of mosques, along with less "hallowed" institutions, like strip clubs, bars and Off Track Betting operations.
But Park51 is getting all the attention downtown — and now, nationwide. President Obama affirmed the constitutional right to build a mosque on private property Friday, breathing new life into an already long-raging controversy. In covering Obama's recent remarks — and the past couple months of debate — the media's played a pivotal role in framing the issues at hand. Here's a rundown of how the media covered the debate as it took shape.
Location, location, location
News organizations make conscious decisions when they describe a construction work-in-progress as either located on the site of the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history or two blocks away. The New York Times — except for one blog headline — has consistently described the mosque in headlines as not being built at Ground Zero but "near" the site.
Corbett, who oversees the Times standards on such questions, told The Upshot that he hasn't issued any formal guidelines but has discussed that particular phrasing with editors.
"To call it the Ground Zero Mosque not only would give you the impression that it's on the site of the Trade Center," he continued, "but it might even give you the further impression that it's part of the rebuilding process to that site."
The Times appears to be in the minority, judging by headlines related to Obama's remarks.
Many news organizations ran headlines this past weekend describing a "Ground Zero mosque," including the Associated Press, Huffington Post, Washington Post, Fox News, New York Daily News, Politico, and AOL's Politics Daily site. (Yahoo! News, linking to an AP story on the remarks, similarly went with "Ground Zero mosque.")
Several other news organizations routinely place "Ground Zero" in quotation marks, which is more of shorthand way of describing the debate without pinpointing the location.
Still, shorthand also plays a significant part in how the media frames debates. Anyone who's picked up a newspaper or turned on cable news has likely heard about the "Ground Zero mosque" and the controversy surrounding it. It's perhaps the simplest way to jump into a story that's now lasted more than two months.
Beginning of the "Ground Zero mosque" narrative
Salon's Justin Elliot noted Monday that the "Ground Zero mosque" controversy started to take shape in early May, with conservative Pamela Geller, of the Atlas Shrugs blog, and the New York Post leading the charge. It was only after such opposition gained steam — and in the wake of an important local community board vote — that the words "Ground Zero mosque" started appearing in headlines of national publications.
The AP, for one, didn't refer to the project as the "Ground Zero mosque" until late May, according to a Lexis-Nexis search.
On May 6, the AP ran the following headline: "Plan for mosque near 9/11-damaged site." Up until May 24, AP headlines were always clear that the project isn't going to be built at Ground Zero. That day's headline: "Landmark status could stop mosque near ground zero."
But on May 25, the AP ran the following: "Groups to present NY ground zero mosque plans." And the next day: "NYC community board OKs ground zero mosque plans."
Since late May, the AP has described the projected in headlines as the "Ground Zero mosque" on numerous, but not all, occasions. Following the president's remarks, the AP ran this headline: "Obama supports 'the right' for ground zero mosque."
Chad Roedemeier, assistant chief of AP's New York bureau, told The Upshot in an email that "the slug" — a journalistic shorthand for what an article's about—"on the story has always been Ground Zero mosque, and it has appeared that way sometimes in headlines."
"But the proposed mosque is actually two blocks away from ground zero, and our stories have always said 'a planned mosque near ground zero,' " Roedemeier continued. "We never say 'a mosque at ground zero.' "
It's true that the AP's coverage of the debate is always clear, often in the lead sentence, that construction would be two blocks away. Roedemeier noted that the AP has used "ground zero mosque" twice in the body of a story, but only "when it was described that way by mosque opponents."
AP spokesman Paul Colford told The Upshot that AP "headlines are a telescoping or a shorthanding of a text and a story." Colford said he was also unaware of any official change in policy that would explain why AP stories before May 25 didn't refer to a "Ground Zero mosque" in headlines.
The 1,500-plus newspapers and websites that run AP copy can change the headlines as they see fit. But given that many newsrooms follow AP style, it's possible they'd also go with the news organization's own usage of "Ground Zero mosque" in headlines.
There goes the neighborhood?
The phrase "Ground Zero mosque" may not only create a perception that the project would built at Ground Zero, but also that there's a section of Manhattan by that name. Nate Silver, the blogger behind FiveThirtyEight.com, pointed out to headline writers this past weekend that Ground Zero is not a neighborhood.
Unlike Manhattan's Upper East Side or Soho, no New Yorker says they live in Ground Zero. Also, two blocks can be worlds apart in Manhattan's real estate market — particularly at the narrow lower tip of the island. In an earlier life as a New York real estate reporter, I've seen firsthand how building prices rise, or dip, considerably, depending on which side of a given street they're on — that's how small a New York neighborhood can be.
The Times' Corbett also pointed out that there are probably hundreds of buildings within a two-block radius of Ground Zero. The decision to shy away from dubbing one the "Ground Zero mosque," he said, is "really a question of being accurate."
"We all fall into these forms of shorthand sometimes, when you've written a story so many times," Corbett said. "Sometimes the shorthand can really confuse people or become inaccurate and we need to be wary about that."
The Upshot has reached out to Fox News to see if it has specific policies and will update when we hear back.
Photo: AP/ Seth Wenig
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