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A fair media can defang intolerance

There is a strong voice of moderates from within Muslim ranks that can be properly channelised by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues

Moin Qazi 26 Apr 2022

Fair media

There can be no higher law in journalism than, to tell the truth, and to shame the devil.
___ Walter Lippman

 

A lot of ink, an infinite number of film reels, and a frantic churn of news stories bristling with violent tones have fixated the Muslims as a stereotyped homogeneity. There is a cottage industry of authors who keep the midnight oil burning to ensure that the flashlights on bad Muslims keep beaming. These are churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine with financial backers, think-tanks, and misinformation experts who are constantly manipulating the already flawed image of what a Muslim is, of what Islam is. 

The majority of Muslims are moderate, peaceful people who have been affected by terrorism and violence more than non-Muslims. But the media is not interested in this positive angle. It has constructed its stereotype of a Muslim as a terrorist and uses selective stories to reinforce this stereotype.

There is a strong voice of moderates from within Muslim ranks that can be properly channelised by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues. It is equally true that the media has tried to hype acts of Islamic impropriety by indulging in hyperbole.

Sadly, journalism is still failing to perform its fundamental role by simply rehashing tired old narratives of “radical Islam” or a “fight within Islam.” The truth is much more convoluted than that and the entire world has a direct role in creating the dangerous reality that so many Muslims have to live with every single day.

The media shows remarkable consistency in employing an arsenal of semantic games, key phrases, convenient omissions, and moral relativism to portray such violence as a product of Islam. As Jim Morrison observes, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”

Several times headlines are sensational or distorted, and reporting is often deeply racist. This impacts directly the lives of Muslims. Some of the stories that are thus emerging are painful and disturbing. 

It is much easier for the media to reduce the complex debate on various issues confronting modern Muslims to a series of clichés, slogans and sound bites, rather than examining root causes. Because instant and credible information have to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumours and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified. They will stay on in readers' memory.

News value also depends on the “social weight” of the message, i.e. the extent to which the media user thinks the message concerns him or her personally. To increase the "social weight" of messages, the reporter is inclined to present the deviant behaviour of Muslims in such a way that it appears to have many consequences for every single person in society.

This could explain why the media makes eager and uncritical use of negative statements about the groups concerned when these are expressed by politicians and other important persons in society.

The negative news presentation about Muslims in the media is also indubitably caused by the fact that reporters generally lack the specific knowledge, which is needed to cover the groups concerned. All of us from the most powerful columnists to the tiniest bloggers, need to be careful about what we put out into the cloud. Words matter most in journalism. Our keyboards have become so powerful now, that our slightest action of irresponsibility can blow us up into a crisis. Many mainstream journalists have struggled to find consistent language to use when covering events linked to violence involving Muslim issues. There are a variety of reasons and the problem cannot be resolved overnight. All these require proper training and mentoring. We need seasoned mentors for journalists covering such sensitive issues.  

The use of the term “Jihadists” is complicated by the fact that the spiritual term "jihad" has been redefined in many ways by thinkers within different streams of religion. There are also journalists and experts who focus on parts of Islam that can be viewed, together, as a political “ideology” as opposed to part of a system that is both theological and there are those who won't hesitate to provide an ideological hue to so many moral ideas.

It's difficult to write about divisions inside Islam, without having some understanding of who is who, and what is what. If the goal is to separate the beliefs and actions of “moderate” or “mainstream” Muslims from those of the radicals–clearly a task that journalists should attempt–then you need to have some language to use in public media for people on both sides of these conflicts.

Religion is often portrayed simply as a social or political construct, although for millions of people, religion is a daily practice and the very real framework of understanding that connects human lives to a spiritual reality. Their faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments. It is difficult to overstate the importance of faith in the lives of so many.

Most people around the world would prefer to live in peace than in conflict. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tension.  

M Scanlon’s now-classic essay, “The Difficulty of Tolerance,” offers materials for an attractive and  affirmative answer.“Tolerance is valuable for its own sake because of the attitude it allows us to bear towards our fellow citizens, an attitude of fraternity and solidarity that is deeper than the intractable disagreements that divide us. Tolerance makes it possible to view all our fellow citizens as equally entitled to participate in defining and determining the shape of society.”

Intolerant individuals, Scanlon argues, don’t view their fellow citizens as so equally entitled. Intolerant individuals think they have a special status as compared to others and do not view others as full members of society.

In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity and journalists are among the most dexterous and skilled people in the world. We have all benefited from the work of persistent journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line in their pursuit of truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate the truth and always find the next story to tell.

The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace. The world, however, has changed, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered in terms of its reputation.

From terrorists to dictators, provocative literature to fabricated threats, Muslim identity is marred by almost every imaginable negative stereotype and menacing trope. Amidst these, the images of good Muslims, in every medium, are few and far between. 

Good storylines of Muslim characters are woefully few.  Often, there is a consistent stream of sloppy reporting, bias, or wilful sensationalism about Muslims. The way stories are deformed to fit a formula about Muslims–and the difficulties in uprooting these fictions once they’ve been laid out  – can be seen all across the media. Corrections and retractions by the media are extremely rare and do not find any prominent space. The clarification is published in inn a vague corner and a very weak font is used. The information hardly gets the attention of any reader and the original news becomes permanently etched in public memory. Several countries have Press Councils for adjudicating such issues but most of them are government nominees who do not have the freedom they need to tame such errant media.

It is much easier for the media to limit the complex debate on various issues confronting Muslims to a series of clichés, slogans and sound bites, rather than examining root causes. It is easier still to champion the most extreme and prejudiced critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists. There is a strong voice of moderates from within the Muslim ranks that could be channelised properly by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues. This could help in shaping a proper perspective on the whole issue.

Sadly, journalism is still failing to perform its fundamental role by simply rehashing tired old narratives of “radical Islam” or a “fight within Islam.” The truth is much more convoluted than that and the entire world has a direct role in creating the dangerous reality that so many Muslims have to live with every single day.

The media shows remarkable consistency in employing an arsenal of semantic games, key phrases, convenient omissions, and moral relativism to portray such violence as a product of Islam. As Jim Morrison observes, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”

Several times headlines are sensational or distorted and reporting is often deeply racist. This impacts directly the lives of Muslims. Some of the stories that are thus emerging are painful and disturbing.  Much coverage of Muslims in the news outlets has a negative slant. We’ve seen how some papers get their news about Muslims wrong and how often they reuse the same stereotypes. True, like many others, Muslims also have a share of negative elements.  But the story has to be fair and reflective and shouldn’t generalise about all Muslims and feed into a broader far-right narrative.  As CP Scott, the founder-editor of The Guardian emphasised, “Comment is free but facts are sacred.”

Religion has been simply reduced to a social or political construct, although for millions of people, it is a daily practice and the very framework for understanding that connects their lives to a spiritual reality. Their faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments.

The reality is that religious leaders and dialogue practitioners may not be equipped to properly understand and analyse news sources or reach out meaningfully to the media. They may not be aware of the process of the newsroom agenda setting and may not recognise that journalists do not usually set the news agenda. Religious leaders and dialogue practitioners could benefit from training on how to represent themselves better to the press and online.

They should not allow their messages of peace and reconciliation or the fact they represent the majority of people of faith, to be overshadowed by media-savvy religious voices that deal in conflict and hatred. There is the possibility that in the heat of debate objectivity gets diluted.

Faith leaders and journalists must both appreciate and understand each other's constraints.

For their part, Muslim leaders can play a very meaningful role in sensitizing the media to the various complexities that Islamic issues have. Broader dialogue can help in a nuanced understanding of the whole issue.

Islamic organizations need to be professional in their public relations, something that few of them are. They need to have staff that can properly interact with non-Muslim media organizations and presents them with a proper and convincing Muslim perspective on a range of issues. The intention should be to interact cordially with the "mainstream" media and thereby help articulate Muslim voices to counter anti-Muslim stereotypes and disinformation. There is a desperate need for Muslim media groups to be research-oriented. They, along with other Muslim community organizations, could commission projects on various social issues relating to the community and articles generated out of such research projects can be sent to various newspapers. Muslim community organizations must seriously consider establishing research centres that specialise in social science research, something that is woefully lacking today. This research can then be made more publicly accessible through the mass media.

What is therefore needed to cool the flames of hatred is to bring faith leaders and the media onto a common platform that would provide constructive interactions thereby injecting objectivity into the media's assessment of Islam and Muslims.

To quote Iqbal:

 

Haq Se Agar Gharz Hai To Zaiba Hai Kya Ye Baat

Islam Ka Muhasiba, Yourap Se Darguzar!

(And if your goal is truth, is this the right road, Europe’s faults all glossed, and all Islam’s held to so strict an audit?)

-Sir Muhammad Iqbal

 

*The writer is a scholar with PhDs in English and Economics

Related:

Hashtags of Hate flood social media as Islamophobia grows

We Indian Muslims need no sermons from the Al-Qaeda

 

A fair media can defang intolerance

There is a strong voice of moderates from within Muslim ranks that can be properly channelised by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues

Fair media

There can be no higher law in journalism than, to tell the truth, and to shame the devil.
___ Walter Lippman

 

A lot of ink, an infinite number of film reels, and a frantic churn of news stories bristling with violent tones have fixated the Muslims as a stereotyped homogeneity. There is a cottage industry of authors who keep the midnight oil burning to ensure that the flashlights on bad Muslims keep beaming. These are churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine with financial backers, think-tanks, and misinformation experts who are constantly manipulating the already flawed image of what a Muslim is, of what Islam is. 

The majority of Muslims are moderate, peaceful people who have been affected by terrorism and violence more than non-Muslims. But the media is not interested in this positive angle. It has constructed its stereotype of a Muslim as a terrorist and uses selective stories to reinforce this stereotype.

There is a strong voice of moderates from within Muslim ranks that can be properly channelised by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues. It is equally true that the media has tried to hype acts of Islamic impropriety by indulging in hyperbole.

Sadly, journalism is still failing to perform its fundamental role by simply rehashing tired old narratives of “radical Islam” or a “fight within Islam.” The truth is much more convoluted than that and the entire world has a direct role in creating the dangerous reality that so many Muslims have to live with every single day.

The media shows remarkable consistency in employing an arsenal of semantic games, key phrases, convenient omissions, and moral relativism to portray such violence as a product of Islam. As Jim Morrison observes, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”

Several times headlines are sensational or distorted, and reporting is often deeply racist. This impacts directly the lives of Muslims. Some of the stories that are thus emerging are painful and disturbing. 

It is much easier for the media to reduce the complex debate on various issues confronting modern Muslims to a series of clichés, slogans and sound bites, rather than examining root causes. Because instant and credible information have to be given, it becomes necessary to resort to guesswork, rumours and suppositions to fill in the voids, and none of them will ever be rectified. They will stay on in readers' memory.

News value also depends on the “social weight” of the message, i.e. the extent to which the media user thinks the message concerns him or her personally. To increase the "social weight" of messages, the reporter is inclined to present the deviant behaviour of Muslims in such a way that it appears to have many consequences for every single person in society.

This could explain why the media makes eager and uncritical use of negative statements about the groups concerned when these are expressed by politicians and other important persons in society.

The negative news presentation about Muslims in the media is also indubitably caused by the fact that reporters generally lack the specific knowledge, which is needed to cover the groups concerned. All of us from the most powerful columnists to the tiniest bloggers, need to be careful about what we put out into the cloud. Words matter most in journalism. Our keyboards have become so powerful now, that our slightest action of irresponsibility can blow us up into a crisis. Many mainstream journalists have struggled to find consistent language to use when covering events linked to violence involving Muslim issues. There are a variety of reasons and the problem cannot be resolved overnight. All these require proper training and mentoring. We need seasoned mentors for journalists covering such sensitive issues.  

The use of the term “Jihadists” is complicated by the fact that the spiritual term "jihad" has been redefined in many ways by thinkers within different streams of religion. There are also journalists and experts who focus on parts of Islam that can be viewed, together, as a political “ideology” as opposed to part of a system that is both theological and there are those who won't hesitate to provide an ideological hue to so many moral ideas.

It's difficult to write about divisions inside Islam, without having some understanding of who is who, and what is what. If the goal is to separate the beliefs and actions of “moderate” or “mainstream” Muslims from those of the radicals–clearly a task that journalists should attempt–then you need to have some language to use in public media for people on both sides of these conflicts.

Religion is often portrayed simply as a social or political construct, although for millions of people, religion is a daily practice and the very real framework of understanding that connects human lives to a spiritual reality. Their faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments. It is difficult to overstate the importance of faith in the lives of so many.

Most people around the world would prefer to live in peace than in conflict. Yet, often the only religious voices on the front page are those speaking messages of hatred or violence, especially in stories about conflict or social tension.  

M Scanlon’s now-classic essay, “The Difficulty of Tolerance,” offers materials for an attractive and  affirmative answer.“Tolerance is valuable for its own sake because of the attitude it allows us to bear towards our fellow citizens, an attitude of fraternity and solidarity that is deeper than the intractable disagreements that divide us. Tolerance makes it possible to view all our fellow citizens as equally entitled to participate in defining and determining the shape of society.”

Intolerant individuals, Scanlon argues, don’t view their fellow citizens as so equally entitled. Intolerant individuals think they have a special status as compared to others and do not view others as full members of society.

In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity and journalists are among the most dexterous and skilled people in the world. We have all benefited from the work of persistent journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line in their pursuit of truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate the truth and always find the next story to tell.

The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace. The world, however, has changed, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered in terms of its reputation.

From terrorists to dictators, provocative literature to fabricated threats, Muslim identity is marred by almost every imaginable negative stereotype and menacing trope. Amidst these, the images of good Muslims, in every medium, are few and far between. 

Good storylines of Muslim characters are woefully few.  Often, there is a consistent stream of sloppy reporting, bias, or wilful sensationalism about Muslims. The way stories are deformed to fit a formula about Muslims–and the difficulties in uprooting these fictions once they’ve been laid out  – can be seen all across the media. Corrections and retractions by the media are extremely rare and do not find any prominent space. The clarification is published in inn a vague corner and a very weak font is used. The information hardly gets the attention of any reader and the original news becomes permanently etched in public memory. Several countries have Press Councils for adjudicating such issues but most of them are government nominees who do not have the freedom they need to tame such errant media.

It is much easier for the media to limit the complex debate on various issues confronting Muslims to a series of clichés, slogans and sound bites, rather than examining root causes. It is easier still to champion the most extreme and prejudiced critics of Islam while ignoring the voices of mainstream Muslim scholars, academics and activists. There is a strong voice of moderates from within the Muslim ranks that could be channelised properly by the media to give a rounded assessment of Islamic issues. This could help in shaping a proper perspective on the whole issue.

Sadly, journalism is still failing to perform its fundamental role by simply rehashing tired old narratives of “radical Islam” or a “fight within Islam.” The truth is much more convoluted than that and the entire world has a direct role in creating the dangerous reality that so many Muslims have to live with every single day.

The media shows remarkable consistency in employing an arsenal of semantic games, key phrases, convenient omissions, and moral relativism to portray such violence as a product of Islam. As Jim Morrison observes, “Whoever controls the media, controls the mind.”

Several times headlines are sensational or distorted and reporting is often deeply racist. This impacts directly the lives of Muslims. Some of the stories that are thus emerging are painful and disturbing.  Much coverage of Muslims in the news outlets has a negative slant. We’ve seen how some papers get their news about Muslims wrong and how often they reuse the same stereotypes. True, like many others, Muslims also have a share of negative elements.  But the story has to be fair and reflective and shouldn’t generalise about all Muslims and feed into a broader far-right narrative.  As CP Scott, the founder-editor of The Guardian emphasised, “Comment is free but facts are sacred.”

Religion has been simply reduced to a social or political construct, although for millions of people, it is a daily practice and the very framework for understanding that connects their lives to a spiritual reality. Their faith is the prism through which they view the world, and their religious communities are their central environments.

The reality is that religious leaders and dialogue practitioners may not be equipped to properly understand and analyse news sources or reach out meaningfully to the media. They may not be aware of the process of the newsroom agenda setting and may not recognise that journalists do not usually set the news agenda. Religious leaders and dialogue practitioners could benefit from training on how to represent themselves better to the press and online.

They should not allow their messages of peace and reconciliation or the fact they represent the majority of people of faith, to be overshadowed by media-savvy religious voices that deal in conflict and hatred. There is the possibility that in the heat of debate objectivity gets diluted.

Faith leaders and journalists must both appreciate and understand each other's constraints.

For their part, Muslim leaders can play a very meaningful role in sensitizing the media to the various complexities that Islamic issues have. Broader dialogue can help in a nuanced understanding of the whole issue.

Islamic organizations need to be professional in their public relations, something that few of them are. They need to have staff that can properly interact with non-Muslim media organizations and presents them with a proper and convincing Muslim perspective on a range of issues. The intention should be to interact cordially with the "mainstream" media and thereby help articulate Muslim voices to counter anti-Muslim stereotypes and disinformation. There is a desperate need for Muslim media groups to be research-oriented. They, along with other Muslim community organizations, could commission projects on various social issues relating to the community and articles generated out of such research projects can be sent to various newspapers. Muslim community organizations must seriously consider establishing research centres that specialise in social science research, something that is woefully lacking today. This research can then be made more publicly accessible through the mass media.

What is therefore needed to cool the flames of hatred is to bring faith leaders and the media onto a common platform that would provide constructive interactions thereby injecting objectivity into the media's assessment of Islam and Muslims.

To quote Iqbal:

 

Haq Se Agar Gharz Hai To Zaiba Hai Kya Ye Baat

Islam Ka Muhasiba, Yourap Se Darguzar!

(And if your goal is truth, is this the right road, Europe’s faults all glossed, and all Islam’s held to so strict an audit?)

-Sir Muhammad Iqbal

 

*The writer is a scholar with PhDs in English and Economics

Related:

Hashtags of Hate flood social media as Islamophobia grows

We Indian Muslims need no sermons from the Al-Qaeda

 

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