The West's mainstream media, an industry led by barons to swell their bank accounts while promoting their own ideology, portraying Islam as the reason of terror, violence and extremism, fails in the objectivity test
In the context of growing media attention given to Islam and Muslims, there is a critical issue with the role that the media plays in reinforcing certain negative stereotypical images of the community. Also of particular importance, is the role that the Muslim media plays, and can play, in both combating these negative stereotypes and disinformation about Islam and Muslims in the "mainstream" media, as well as helping in the process of the overall empowerment of the Muslim community. Muslim representation in the media is dismal, while Muslims' share in media ownership is even more pathetic.
There is widespread agreement among Muslims that media reports involving them are selective, biased, stereotypical and inaccurate. If you want to know how many times Muslims condemned violence and extremism just Google "Muslims against terrorism" or "Muslims condemning ISIS" or any similar phrase and you will be surprised by the thousands of Muslim institutions, scholars and governments that are condemning and fighting terrorism while assuring everyone that this does not have anything to do with the peaceful message of Islam. 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 news. It has constructed its own stereotype of a Muslim and uses selective stories to reinforce this stereotype.
So what is the purpose of the mainstream media if they are not going to fulfill their mission of informing the public? Money. The collective media is a multibillion-dollar monolith. It is an industry that is managed by industry barons who want to promote their own ideology and feed on firing information at the viewer at a machinegun pace, and when that happens, a lot of context is lost. Many of the people who work in media have no clue how to tell a story at street level and when it is a story about Islamic issues, they are even more clueless. The press follows a familiar narrative everywhere. Muslims are extremists, intolerant and their scriptures promote violence.
The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam by non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable - hatred feeds on hatred. The ignorance of Islam exists both among Muslims and non-Muslims. Non-Muslims, ignorant and misunderstanding Islam, fear it. They believe it threatens their most basic values. Fantasy, conjecture and stereotypes replace fact and reality. Similarly, Muslims have their own misconceptions. Reacting to the hate and fear of non-Muslims, they create a kind of defensive posture within their societies and a combative environment built on militant rhetoric. In this heat and misunderstanding, the voices of peace and tolerance are drowned out. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail. The media can play a very critical role in our goal of achieving this objective.
The reality is that religious leaders and dialogue practitioners may not be equipped to properly understand and analyze 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 recognize 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.
It is necessary that both faith leaders and journalists appreciate and understand each other's constraints.
News media relies on sales for survival because their sales figures determine both their subscription and advertising revenues. What sells is hard-hitting news about dramatic, action-packed and emotionally charged events. As the saying goes: "If it bleeds, it leads." That does not mean that audiences do not react positively to in-depth features and profiles, but traditionally headlines are driven by hard news, including political, military and economic developments. This can make it challenging to find a prominent space for nuance.
There are scholars who devote their entire careers to understanding even a single religious sub-tradition. There are different doctrines, beliefs, modes of dress and practices, institutional structures, leaders, alliances and disputes among individuals or communities that are opaque from the outside. Different communities within the same religion may have different interpretations of history and doctrine. For news media, training reporters so they can depict and report knowledgeably on religious communities may seem prohibitively time consuming, expensive or difficult. These are the cold, hard facts of day-to-day media operations.
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 actually are. They need to have staff that are able to properly interact with non-Muslim media organizations and present them 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 centers that specialize 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 in the media's assessment of Islam and Muslims.
* Based in Napur, Ph.D., Economics, author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar
About the author
Based in Napur, Ph.D., Economics, author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar