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Monday, April 10, 2006

NBC's Dateline, Muslims, and the Ethics of Journalism

Dateline, an NBC news program featuring investigative reports and documentaries, has come under fire for reportedely sending Muslim-looking men into a NASCAR race in Martinsville, Virginia, and filming the reaction of the crowd. The interest in the story, it would seem, is to confirm the stereotype that NASCAR fans are a largely homogeneous and racist mix.

The underlying story, whether Muslims or Muslim looking individuals, encounter difficulties on the basis of their actual or perceived religion in a sporting event, is interesting. However, NASCAR believes that Dateline has crossed ethical boundaries in its attempt to investigate and discuss such difficulties. That is, Dateline has, in the words of NASCAR spokesman Ramsey Poston, "create[d] news instead of reporting news."

There is appeal to NASCAR's argument. There is a fundamental difference between being a passive observer of news or the mistreatment of minorities in particular, and between creating the situations in which such mistreatment is expected to take place. In this case, Dateline's goal -- legitimizing the stereotype against NASCAR attendees -- and its means of reaching this goal -- affirmatively sending Muslim-looking men into the stands -- does not advance journalism or the study of minority-relations after 9/11; the only appropriate consequence, it seems, is a loss of Dateline's own credibility.

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