Is it me or is it the media? Engage Minnesota’s manual for journalists


Engage Minnesota is proud to present the following short manual written by our very own Tamim Saidi for journalists who seek to be fair toward Muslims in their journalistic work.

Is It Me or Is It the Media?

Muslims in the Media: Some suggestions for fair-minded journalists

 At the outset, and before I start the discussion on presentation or misrepresentation of Muslims in the media, I feel obliged to acknowledge and thank all the great journalists who have gone out of their way to be fair in representing Muslims.  I have personally met or communicated with some these great journalists.  Being fair to Muslims is not an easy task in the prevalent commercial media culture where “if it bleeds, it leads” has become the motto of some commercial stations.  

The problem of Muslim misrepresentation in the media is multifold. 

First, like any normal human, journalists are not immune to personal and societal biases. Second, like most Americans who admit to having little or no knowledge of Islam (about two thirds, according to a recent poll), some journalists (yes, even those covering the Middle East and religion reporters) may suffer from lack of knowledge about the faith and people.  Third, the commercial culture of “sensationalism” forces many journalists, including the copy editors and page designers, to sensationalize the news, the headlines and the coverage to get more viewership or more hits.  Last, the lack of or the unavailability or unwillingness of Muslims to contact or educate the journalists has contributed to misrepresentation of Muslims.  In some cases reluctance by the Muslims to be quoted by name or photographed in an article or video story – creates obstacles for well-intentioned journalists from getting a complete picture of Muslim issues.

Here are a few very interesting findings from Gallup polls, released early 2010:

  • Islam elicits the most negative views among all religions. P4
  • Almost 2/3rd (63%) of Americans say they have “very little” or “no knowledge” of Islam.
  • “Islam is not only the religion that is the most frequently mentioned in television in the US, but also a significant share of this knowledge is negative. P9
  • While 14% of statements about religion on TV news referred to Christianity, reference to Islam accounted for 36% of all statements analyzed by Media Tenor between Jan and Aug 2009. P9
  • In addition, the tone of statements about Islam (40%) was twice as likely to be negative than statements about Christianity (20%).
  • Furthermore, Media Tenor’s analysis shows that 2/3 of TV coverage about Islam associates Muslims with extremism.  P9
  • Gallup’s findings suggest that it is the observed behavior of fringe elements that may shape Americans’ unfavorable attitudes toward Muslims. P9
  • More than 4/10 (43%) of Americans admit to having prejudice towards Muslims. P4
  • The US media often portrays Muslim women as victims.
  • In a survey of photographs of Muslims in American press, nearly 3/4 (73%) of women were depicted in “passive” capacities, compared to less than 1/6th (15%) of men.
  • In photographs of Middle East, the role of victim is the most frequently cast for women. P10
  • Women were 6 times (42%) more likely to be portrayed as victims than men (7%). P10
  • Those prejudiced towards Jews are 32 times more likely to be prejudiced towards Muslims. P12
  • Those who do not know the name of Islam’s holy book are twice as likely to say they have no prejudice. P17
  • Counterintuitive: Those who know the name of prophet of Islam are more than twice likely to report prejudice. P14
  • “This suggests that feeling “a great deal” or extreme prejudice toward Muslims is not borne out of the absence of any information about Muslims, but rather arises from being exposed to negative media coverage of Islam and its followers.” P14
  • Those who attend religious service more than once per week are less likely to have prejudice towards Muslims.
  • “This finding further suggests that Americans’ default position, absent of any information, is to have no prejudice and that extreme prejudice is learned.” P17
  • Americans are more twice as likely to express negative feelings about Muslims as they are about Buddhists, Christians, and Jews. P4

Ten Suggestions for Fair-minded Journalists

1. Avoid Double Standards

Many Muslims feel that quite often they and their religion are not represented fairly.  As I mentioned in a previous article (Just a Terrorist or an Islamic Fundamentalist), if a Muslim happens to commit terrorism, he is often called an “Islamic Terrorist,” or an “Islamic Fundamentalist.”

However, the man who shot and killed George Tiller was just called a “gunman”; the church shooters are just “attackers,” and Eric Rudolph is a “fugitive serial bomber,” or merely “anti-abortion extremist.” There is no mention of their religions or the motives behind their actions.

Most headlines did not even mention the word “Jewish” when they reported about the Jewish Defense League (JDL), an organization considered terrorist by the FBI.

As it was brought to my attention by an African American friend, just a few decades ago when a white man robbed a bank, he was called a “John Doe the bank robber,” but if it was an African American man, he was called the “black bank robber.”  Over the last few decades journalism, has come along way in the right direction.  We do not hear African Americans being called “Black robbers” or “Black rapists” nor do we hear the phrase “Jewish terrorists.”

However, Muslims are still being called “Islamic terrorists.”  To many Muslims this is a clear case of double standards.

Much to their credit, the White House and the Pentagon have dropped the use of offensive phrases such as “Islamic Fundamentalist,” “Muslim Terrorist,” “Jihadists.”  It is about time for the journalists to stop using these terms as well. These are counterproductive and offensive to many Muslims.

Singling out Muslims for the use of this type of derogatory terminology reinforces the notion that, “Islamophobia is the last bastion of hate and prejudice still accepted in America.”

See examples [1], [4], & [5].

2. Avoid Sensationalizing the Headlines and the News

Since most reporters do not pick the headlines or the titles for their articles, many copy editors and headline writers could benefit from some education in this regard as well.  Many times, very balanced and fair articles and reports are tainted by bad headlines, using inappropriate terminology mentioned above. 

This may make for a sensational headline, but terrible journalism.

See [2], [3], and [9].

3. Terminology is Important – Muslim vs. Islam

People are not “Islams” and not “Islamics;” the people are Muslims.  Please don’t call a radical Muslim a “radical Islam.”  Just like a radical Christian group leader would not be called “radical Christianity,” it is wrong to call an individual Muslim “radical Islam.”

If one insists on using improper terminology, the proper wording would be “Muslim extremists,” and NOT “Islamic extremists.”

And while we are at discussing this, Islam and Muslim are both pronounced with a ‘soft’ S. It is not pronounced as “Izlam” and “Mozlim,” but a soft s, as in Lisa or Krista.

Even though I usually don’t mind an average person calling me “Islam,” or “Islamic,” I have higher expectations from reputable papers, reputable stations and reputable journalists.

How about the term “Islamist”?  Well, if you have ever used the term “Christianist” for similar groups among the 2 billion Christians, I think you have every right to use the word “Islamist.”  Otherwise, I would avoid this term. It is confusing, and most people cannot tell the difference between ‘Islamic’ or ‘Islamist.’

See [5], & [1].

4. Jihad is NOT “Holy War”

The renowned Muslim scholar Dr. Jamal Badawi has challenged audiences at a number of his presentations: If they could find the equivalent phrase to “Holy War” in the Quran, then he would give them 1 million dollars.  The equivalent term in Arabic would be “harbul muqadasa” which does not exist in the Quran or in Islamic terminology.   There are a large number of articles written to explain jihad, so I won’t belabor the point too much.

Jihad means to strive and to struggle. Charity, child birth, raising children, pilgrimage, resisting illicit temptations, and speaking the truth in front of a tyrant ruler were among the things that Prophet Muhammad (p) called “jihad.”

Just like “crusade” which can have a very positive connotation in the West (e.g., a crusade against poverty, crusade against drugs …), Muslims use “jihad” with positive connotations.  Calling terrorists “Jihadis” would be giving them an honorable title in the mind of many Muslims.  See [8] and [9].

5. Cover both sides

Generally, when someone like Eric Rudolph commits terrorism, a reporter would go to a Christian authority (a pastor, a priest, or a professor) to get a counter-argument to Rudolph’s claim that he wants to blow up abortion clinics in the name of Christianity.  Quite often the same courtesy is not given to the Muslims. And yes, Muslims and Muslims leaders do condemn terrorism.  If you cannot find an imam to come on camera, please let us know and we can find you a number of imams and leaders.

I was impressed with a CNN reporter who after reporting on the views of Anwar al-Awlaki, also interviewed another imam in the same city (Imam Jawahiri Muhammad) who condemned the views of Al Awlaki as un-Islamic.

6. Avoid psychological conditionings:

Remember Pavlov and his drooling dogs?

On countless occasions, millions of Americans have watched clips of bombs blowing up and then the very next frame is a picture of Muslim women with scarves walking down the street or Muslims worshippers prostrating to God in a mosque or the sound of Adhan (the call to the prayer) saying ‘Allahu Akbar’ (God is Great). 

Unknowingly, the viewer is conditioned to associate terrorism with Muslims and Islam.  I know this may not be intentional on the part of the journalist, but the effect is clear.  Sometimes I think if I were in the shoes of my neighbors and watched all these clips, I would be scared of Muslims, too.

7. Avoid generalizations and stereotypes

Looking at the 1.5 billion Muslims around the world, we just have a few things in common: We are all human. We believe in the One God, the Creator of the world, and we believe in Prophet Muhammad as God’s last messenger and prophet. Other than that, we differ in many ways. Our cultures, customs, clothes, habits and even religious practices and political views vary.  We are not a monolithic community.

Here in Minnesota, our community is made up of janitors, cab drivers, intellectuals, doctors, brain surgeons and rocket scientists. About of 1/3 of the community is made up of converts.  We are one of the most diverse communities you can find.

8. We are more than the three-minute news clip

A great local journalist, Kerri Miller of MPR, hosted a show where she invited Rep. Keith Ellison and Eboo Patel.  When questioned about all the negative news coming from the Muslim world, Eboo asked: What do you think people around the world would think of Minnesota, if they only watched the first three minutes of each of our evening news clips for a year?  Faithful to the motto of “if it bleeds, it leads,’ people would only hear about the murders, rapes, robberies and occasional election issues. All the great things that happen in Minnesota would not be covered. 

Here in the US, we only get to see the first one minute of news from people that make up one quarter of the world population.   There is more to Muslims than these clips show us.

9. Fair coverage

The Muslim community is not asking for extra favorable coverage, just fair coverage.  Just like you cover Christmas, Easter, Hanukkah, Kwanza, Chinese and Hmong holidays and others, it would be great for you to also consider covering Muslim holidays. 

I am sure some of you might not be familiar with these holidays.  The month of Ramadan, the holiday after Ramadan (Eid al Fitr), Pilgrimage, and the Eid after pilgrimage are the main holidays for Muslims.  Just like the “human interest” stories of other communities, it would be great to have some human stories from the Muslim community. 

With an estimated 150,000 Muslims in Minnesota, this should not be difficult to find.  When the norm is to show how bizarre and outlandish are the Muslim practices and beliefs, it would be great if a few stories also focused on similarities.  

Similarities could be at the human level, at the family level, individual passions, and yes even beliefs.  Most people do not know that Islamic beliefs are very similar to Jewish and Christian beliefs.  Muslims believe in the same God, the Creator of the universe. Allah is the Arabic name for God, and millions of Christian Arabs pray to Allah everyday.  So next time instead of saying “Muslims bow down to Allah,” which to most readers sounds as if Muslims bow down to some imaginary deity or some “moon god,” you can simply say “Muslims prostrate to God.”

Muslims believe in Adam and Eve, Abraham, Noah, Moses, David and Jesus (peace be upon them all).  Jesus is exclusively called the “Messiah” or the Christ in the Quran.  His name is mentioned 25 times, and more often than the name of “Muhammad.”  The name of Virgin Mary is mentioned more often in the Quran than in the Bible.  Even the terrifying “Sharia” has a lot in common with what the Bible teaches.

10. Talk with us, not just about us

One of the reasons the EngageMN project was started was because many of the founders and contributors felt that there were a lot of talk, discussion and analysis of Muslims, without any tangible input from the Muslims.  As the EngageMN statement explains:

Minnesota Muslims are finding themselves voiceless, discussed, defined, categorized, psychoanalyzed, talked at and talked about without a serious attempt at inclusion.”

I know this trend has started, thanks to NPR, MPR, MSNBC, CNN local papers and others, but it would be great to include more Muslim voices as part of the conversation.  More often the only Muslims on the screen (particularly movie screens) are the terrorists and the extremists.  Obviously, the terrorists make the news more often, and it is much harder for the moderates to make the news.  The problem with “moderates” is that, by definition, they are moderates.  Unfortunately, moderation and normalcy does not make it to the news.

Still, it would be great to include some moderate voices to balance the extremists.  With all the attention and the spotlights focused on the extremists, there is no surprise that most Americans wonder “Where are the moderate Muslims?”

So when the moderates condemn terrorism, please cover that, and when you talk about terrorists, please also mention the condemnation of terrorism by moderates.

You, as fair and ethical journalists, can help the American public hear the voices of moderate Muslims.

Your work makes a world of difference

In a climate where two thirds of Americans admit to having little to no knowledge about Islam, the information communicated in the media makes a huge difference in how the public treats their Muslim neighbors, coworkers, and just the Muslims they see in the mall.

When one quarter of the population holds “extreme prejudice,” two thirds is scared of Muslims, and Islamophobia, discrimination and prejudice against American Muslims is on the rise, it is not the public’s fault.  What is reported and how it is reported makes a big difference in people’s perceptions and how they treat their neighbors.

Suggested Readings:

I think it is reasonable to expect most reporters and journalists who write or report on religions, terrorism, the broader ‘Middle East” and local Muslim groups to have some basic knowledge of the religion of Islam and the people who follow it.

Some renowned non-Muslim scholars such as Karen Armstrong and John Esposito have written a number of great books on Islam and Muslims which might be a good place to start.  Also, Muslim authors such as Suzanne Haneef (What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims) and Yahya Emerick (What Islam is All about) have very informative books.  As I suggested to a columnist who would often get the facts wrong when it came to Islam and Muslims, the minimum requirement should be The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam.  All jokes aside, it is a very good and informative book. See [6] and [7].

From my minimal research of the Civil Rights era, it is clear that journalists played a crucial role in the fight for civil rights.  While some fanned the flames of bigotry, prejudice and segregation, many fair-minded and unprejudiced journalists rose above bigotry and, by the power of their pens and their ideas, made America a better place for all Americans.  Today, we honor many of these journalists, and for others we wonder why they could not see the evil caused by their words.

After all, what you report, how you report it, and what you decide not to report shapes the opinions of millions of people.  Your work can make our world a better place for everyone-or the opposite. 

As Americans, we have great faith in you and your work in informing us and in educating us.


Examples of not hard to find, but here a few prominent cases:

[1] “French trial opens for 8 suspected of staging robberies to finance Islamic terror operations”

[2] Christiane Amanpour moderates a special ‘This Week’ town hall debate. “Should Americans Fear Islam?”

[3] “Suicide Bomber Meeting”

[4] “Man on Trial Testifies He Killed Prominent Kansas Abortion Doctor”

[5] “Son of Radical Islam Leader Killed in FBI Shootout Caught in Canada”

[6] Suzanne Haneef’s What Everyone Should Know about Islam and Muslims.

[7] Yahya Emerick’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Islam

[8] Explanation of Jihad by Gallup.

[9] “German Court Allows Boy to be Named ‘Djehad’ – Meaning ‘Holy War'”