Honor killings are horrific.

As I noted in my initial post on the matter, I admire and share Mark Steyn's staunch opposition to them, and I am glad that he is drawing more attention to the subject, even if he does hate my work. But his assertions about the way media covers this subject are unfounded and at times factually inaccurate. I don't mean that the press covers honor killings perfectly, or exactly as I would, or that stories aren't ever bungled, or written and edited by people whose biases result in sub-par work. Neither is it generally true, however, that mainstream newspapers ignore this issue due to political correctness and a commitment to multiculturalism -- and if there are people who want to see the press cover this issue more, it is important that they understand the actual factors that are at play.

If I might summarize our disagreement with more clarity than I've yet managed: Mr. Steyn makes the following assertions in his post on this subject:

1) "Not one of the major newspapers has done an investigative series into the proliferation of 'honor killings'... in the heart of the western world." This is true if we limit the western world to the United States -- more about why that is so later in this post. It seems to me, however, that this major New York Times Magazine feature about Berlin is precisely a significant investigation of Muslims, honor killings, and related cultural matters in the heart of the Western world, and while it is not technically a multi-part newspaper story, it is the functional equivalent.

2) "Multiculturalism trumps feminism, and so the media accept a two-tier sisterhood in which Muslim girls are run over, stabbed, strangled, drowned and decapitated for wanting to live like the women they read about in The New York Times and The Washington Post." I'd reply that The New York Times, to cite one major newspaper, has written dozens of stories that lament the violent deaths of Muslim girls, that several of their columnists have taken the same position, including one, Nick Kristof, who crusades against honor killing, and that these facts -- combined with the newspaper's substantial coverage of honor killings abroad -- are enough to rebut the assertion that, at major American newspapers, "multiculturalism trumps feminism" in the matter of violent death by honor killing.

3) The media's "silence on this issue" is "an especially ugly manifestation of how their news instincts have been castrated by political correctness." In my initial post, I exhaustively showed that The New York Times -- again, the example I decided to research -- covers this issue exhaustively abroad. It makes no sense to me that editors, reporters and columnists would be willing to actively cover Muslims abroad for engaging in honor killings, but that faced with a woman killed the same way in the United States, they'd suddenly adopt an entirely different attitude -- political correctness -- to the same subject. In his followup, however, Mr. Steyn said that this is the case, arguing that his initial post referred to how newspapers react when honor killings happen in their "backyard." In my response, I therefore focused on one of the honor killings that Mr. Steyn says was ignored, and listed a bunch of stories in the closest major newspaper, The Arizona Republic, that did anything but ignore it.

On reflection, what I find most interesting about this dispute, and most maddening, is that Mr. Steyn sees an issue that is covered in American newspapers less than he'd like, and assumes that the lack of coverage -- that is, the lack of a Pulitzer-bait, multi-part investigative series in a major newspaper -- must be due to "political correctness" or "multiculturalism."

As I noted, these ideologies don't explain why journalists would cover these issues exhaustively abroad, and ignore them at home. If anything, the true multi-culturalist would be less willing to criticize a practice in a foreign culture than one happening right here in the United States.

Even if you don't buy that, folks who've reported on honor killings abroad -- talking to the dead girl's friends, seeing the crime scene photos of her bloody body, and writing at length about the abhorrence of the act -- are not credibly going to come back to the United States and ignore an honor killing for the sake of political correctness (also, is it really even considered politically incorrect to write about honor killings in newsrooms? It wasn't at the Media News Group chain where I worked.)

But why aren't there any newspaper stories about the trend of honor killing in America, beyond this USA Today story, this San Francisco Chronicle piece, this Boston Globe column, this Leonard Pitts column... okay, so there are some stories, unacknowledged by Mr. Steyn in his initial post, that are data points against the inaccurate assertion that newspapers are "silent" on this matter (why, even the San Francisco Chronicle!)...

Even so, pace Mr. Steyn, where are the multi-part investigative Pulitzer bait stories? Why haven't they appeared? Isn't that dearth evidence that pc, multi-culti newspapers don't care about the trend of honor killing in America?

In fact, lots of other factors are far more plausible explanations -- and again, if you're seeking to influence coverage of USA honor killings, better that you understand what you're actually up against than fooling yourself into thinking that political correctness or multiculturalism is your main foe. The excesses of those ideologies creep into media coverage from time to time, but to cite them as paramount is myopic.

As a former newspaperman and a close watcher of the press, let me suggest some of the factors that determine whether something is going to get multi-part, Pulitzer-bait, investigative treatment.

1) If it's a "trend" investigation you're proposing, is it actually a trend? In 2009 USA Today reported that Muslim immigrant men have been accused of six "honor killings" in the United States in the past two years. Later in the piece: "Phyllis Chesler, who wrote about honor killings in her book Woman's Inhumanity to Woman, says police need to focus on the crimes' co-conspirators if they wish to reverse the trend. Before 2008, there were six honor killings in the USA in the previous 18 years, according to her research."

So at most (according to this story), we're talking about 3 honor killings per year in the USA, based on the last two years available -- or if we look at all the data we have here, less than one honor killing per year. Let's put this in perspective: the United States averages 16 shark attacks per year (a figure I use because a one-time editor of mine said you don't have a national trend story if your subject happens less often than shark attacks). Lightning kills 58 people per year in the United States. In other words, even if you tripled the number of honor killings each year in America, it would still be substantially more rare than the most cliched examples of rare death. I cannot recall ever seeing a trend story about any subset of female murders save uncaught serial killers (though I am sure they exist somewhere); I am equally sure that honor killing is far from the most common way females are murdered, despite it being the only trend story of that genre conservative pundits are regularly demanding. Does ignoring those trends mean we're selling out women too? 

2) If it's a valid story, is it best covered by a multi-part investigative series?
If the subject is honor killings in America, I don't think so: were I an editor, I'd probably tell the reporter to either report one representative case exhaustively, and then report statistics on the others. There wouldn't be many investigative surprises: the victim is dead, the murderer is either escaped or in prison, everyone agrees it is abhorrent...

In other words, it's worthwhile to tell these stories when they happen, even to report on the USA trend if it exists, but I'm unsure with what one would fill a multi-part series. The subject seems to me best suited for a long magazine style piece that runs on Sunday, and while that is obviously a subjective assessment, note that even being wrong about it implies nothing about pc-ness.

3) If it's valid and suited to a multi-part investigation, is it the best project, given that I can only do one or two of these a year? Obviously the answer is going to be "no" in many cases, because horrific as they are, exhaustively covering one, two or three honor killings per year might be less important than an investigation into the chemical that is poisoning the local water supply, the malfunctioning red lights killing 5 people a year at a certain intersection, the innocent man confined to a jail cell for a dozen years, the new cholesterol treatment that radically reduces heart attacks, the heroic work done by a local unit deployed to Iraq... the list of important stories is endless, and the vast majority will never get multi-part investigations, a fact that implies nothing about how editors and reporters feel about them.

4) Unless I am a national paper like The New York Times or USA Today, does it have a local angle? In a year with two honor killings, this particular question eliminates the newspapers everywhere in America save two locales where the killings took place. That's a major factor! A newspaper in Sacramento isn't going to investigate an honor killing in Poughkeepsie.

5) If there is a local angle and we're covering it as the story unfolds, is a multi-part investigation the best use of our resources?  Were I editor of The Arizona Republic, I imagine my readership -- having already been exposed to all the honor killing stories I list here after a local example -- would be much better served by assigning my reporters to investigate violent Mexican drug cartels and the prospect of their setting up shop in Phoenix, or Sheriff Joe Arpaio, or a dozen other important matters, since the additional insights gleaned from a multi-part investigation aren't that significant for anyone following the daily coverage.

6) If there is a local angle, and a major investigation would be the best use of our resources, do I have a reporter capable of getting inside the local Syrian immigrant community to report this piece? Sometimes the answer is no. You send someone out, he realizes all the necessary sources either won't talk or don't even speak the language, there is no money for a translator, and so it goes. Welcome to the budget busted newsrooms of 2010. 

7) If I am The New York Times, say, and I think it is important to cover the subject of honor killings, does it make sense to focus my efforts on America? The answer is arguably no. Were I a reporter at the Times interested in this subject, due to my fervent desire to expose this practice and contribute to stopping it, I'd want to report from (say) Syria and Turkey, where hundreds of honor killings happen each year, or Britain, where estimates are more like a dozen per year, rather than America, where there are far fewer cases, and the recent spike might not even turn out to be a sustained trend.

Presumably, editors at the Times would also want to cover this subject in places where it is most common, and even accepted in local culture and de facto legal. Those stories would seem to do more good than focusing on exceptionally rare cases in a country where the practice is utterly against the law and abhorred across the political spectrum. (Additionally, the reporters most qualified to cover these stories are often stationed overseas.)

These concerns, and others of this kind, are far more influential in determining what kinds of projects are pursued at newspapers than vague ideological attachments to political correctness and multiculturalism. That they nowhere enter into Mr. Steyn's assessment of newspapers' motives is a major flaw in his analysis.

The Internet is a big place, so perhaps I am missing something, but I am having trouble locating a conservative magazine that has done a multi-part investigation of the "honor killing trend" in the United States. (I'll happily update this if someone shoots me an e-mail with a link I've missed: conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com). I suspect the lack is explained by some of the items I've just run through, rather than political correctness run amok among their editors and writers.     

In the reaction to my prior posts, critics have been particularly upset that I called on Mr. Steyn to append a correction to his initial post. Above I've outlined again where I think he is factually inaccurate, and the reader can be the judge of whether I am right or blinded by the passions of disagreement. Even if you choose the latter option, however, am I not correct that readers of Mr. Steyn's initial post are given an incomplete, misleading account of how often newspapers cover this subject, and what motivates their decisions? And that adding some of what I'm unearthed would better their understanding?

My hope is that I've contributed to a better informed discussion, however imperfectly, and I submit that after reading this post, advocates of more coverage of honor killings are far better prepared to lobby their newspaper of choice.