Media coverage of Muslims and Islam still open to criticism

http://www.upi.com/Features/Culture_Society/2009/10/21/Media-coverage-of-Muslims-and-Islam-still-open-to-criticism/12561455101988/

Media coverage of Muslims and Islam still open to criticism

By Jennifer Hoewe, Written for UPI

News coverage of Muslims in the United States is still drawing criticism despite signs of some improvement.

 

U.S. media continue to portray Muslims as terrorists and extremists in news coverage, said Imam Dawud Walid, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Michigan.

“It’s usually an event relating to bigotry or law enforcement against the Muslim community,” he said. “That’s the majority of stories.”

Most coverage of Muslims is sensational, he added, which is especially troubling because of the media’s impact on public opinion.

Most coverage of Muslims is sensational, he added, which is especially troubling because of the media’s impact on public opinion.

“The media have significant influence because the majority of Americans don’t know much about Islam or have general interaction with Muslims,” Walid said. “All they know about Muslims is the images they see on TV, hear on the radio or read in magazines or newspapers.”

A poll conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press supported Walid’s comments. A survey conducted in August indicated 54 percent of respondents said they were not personally acquainted with a Muslim and 41 percent said they knew both that Allah is the Muslim name for God and that the Koran is the Muslim holy book.

Jordan Robinson, media associate for One Nation, said his organization is making progress in combating negative images conveyed by the media. One Nation, which seeks to correct misperceptions of Muslim Americans, has representatives who contact media outlets when a questionable story is published regarding the Muslim community.

“We’re making a concerted effort to look at media, see what articles are coming out and find the dominant ways Muslims are being portrayed,” Robinson said. “We’re helping to pitch more positive stories that were already out there but weren’t getting enough coverage.”

Though the media’s coverage of Muslims in America has improved, it has been minimal, he added.

“There’s sometimes a concerted effort to shape things to fit a certain agenda,” Robinson said. “There are folks (in the media) who are totally dedicated to finding articles or creating articles that really impede the character of people; they do these character assassinations.”

The Pew study found 38 percent of those asked said they believed Islam is more likely to encourage violence than other religions, while 45 percent did not. The center noted that these numbers have fluctuated in recent years but the percentages actually flipped since the last survey in 2007.

This change in public opinion is partially due to increased activity within the Muslim community that seeks to dispel lingering stereotypes, Robinson said, and Americans in general are beginning to educate themselves.

The Pew study found some evidence of Americans’ efforts to learn more about Muslims, noting that those correctly identifying both Allah and the Koran had risen by 8 percentage points since 2002.

“(Coverage) is getting better because people are becoming more aware of the Muslim community and the Muslim community is becoming more aware of its need to tell stories,” Robinson said.

Increased interaction between reporters and Muslims in the United States has improved the availability of those stories, said Manya Brachear, a Chicago Tribune religion reporter.

“A lot of Muslim community mosque leaders have not had good working relationships with the press,” Brachear said. “That has really improved. And that’s how you improve coverage – build those working relationships.”

Walid agreed, saying, “The Muslim community has become more proactive. They’re doing more outreach to the broader community.”

Brachear said accusations of biased coverage are unwarranted because reporters are not falling for the “slanted views” of some bloggers. Mainstream media coverage of the Muslim community is neutral, she added.

“People are going to read what they want to read,” Brachear said of those who doubt the objectivity of coverage. “They’re going to look for things that make them angry and complain about them. This is across the board and there’s nothing I can do about that.”

However, Austin Jackson, assistant professor teaching Muslim studies at Michigan State University, placed the blame squarely on the media, not the public.

“The portrayals of all Muslim Americans have been limited,” Jackson said. “The only time we see Muslim Americans in the media, if at all, is when someone is accused of terrorism or arrested on some terror-related charge.”

Jackson said most Americans believe the rhetoric pushed through the media and have determined, for example, that the words Muslim and Arab are synonymous.

“Islam is the fastest growing religion in the U.S., but you don’t see its diversity represented,” Jackson said. “You don’t see African-American Muslims represented in the media.”

Walid urged the media to change their focus and correct any misguided coverage.

“The media should do stories to try to clarify the misperceptions they’ve put out,” Walid said. “Because once one news story has gone out, the damage has been done.”

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