02/12/2015 03:58 pm ET Updated Feb 12, 2015

News Organizations Stop Short Of Calling Chapel Hill Shooting A 'Hate Crime'

Since news broke of the Tuesday shooting of three Muslims -- a young husband and wife and the wife’s sister -- in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, the media has come under fire both for not covering the attack sufficiently and for failing to report it as a hate crime.

Under the banner of #MuslimLivesMatter -- a variation of #BlackLivesMatter, which became a rallying cry after the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri -- a campaign has sprung up on Twitter speculating that if shooter Craig Stephen Hicks had been Muslim, the incident would have attracted widespread, immediate attention.

“The media is not covering X enough” is a common criticism levied at news organizations, and a difficult one to refute. With limited bandwidth, journalists and editors have to make decisions about which stories they cover, which necessarily means some events go underreported or are not reported on at all.

It’s certainly true that, had the shooter been Muslim, the media would have been all over it. But just because some pundits have a habit of rushing to blame the perpetrator’s faith whenever a Muslim commits a crime doesn’t mean they should necessarily do the same when the roles are reversed. This isn’t to say the Chapel Hill shootings don’t deserve attention, but that bad reporting practices shouldn’t be the standard for good ones.

It's worth being wary whenever a developing news event starts to become a cause. When there’s an ideological investment in a narrative, it makes it harder to see the truth, or report any new information without being accused of bias. All this calls for news organizations to exercise particular caution.

Let’s review the evidence. Police and the shooter’s wife initially suggested the rampage, which killed Deah Barakat, 23, his wife, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and her sister, Razan Abu-Salha, 21, was “motivated by an ongoing neighbor dispute over parking.” Members of the victims’ families, on the other hand, suspect the attack was motivated by religious bias, as do members of the local Muslim community. The father of two of the victims, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, also said one of his daughters had said Hicks was "a hateful" neighbor and that he "hat[ed] us for what we are and how we look."

The one concrete fact observers have cited in support of the view that the shootings were bias-motivated were anti-religious views Hicks had posted on Facebook.

This is highly circumstantial, which suggests news outlets should wait until police have had the chance to investigate further before labeling the killings a hate crime. This is largely what they’ve done. The major broadcast and cable networks, as well as The New York Times and The Washington Post, have reported on the controversy over the motive for the attacks, but have refrained from coming down on either side.

MSNBC's Ronan Farrow addressed the labeling debate on his show, saying "it's entirely possible, with the definition under the law, for something to be triggered by a parking dispute ... but still be a hate crime."

Still, the fact that the families of the victims and many in the Muslim community feel like the killings were religiously motivated speaks volumes about what it’s like to be a member of a minority faith group in America. That’s certainly something that deserves more coverage.