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Reclaiming The Perceptions Of Muslims, pt. 2 — Understanding The Media

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Reclaiming the Perceptions of Muslims: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4

Let’s look at how media outlets function, and why the Islamosphere to date doesn’t mesh as well as it could with how a news operation works and what it seeks.

How Media Works

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News coverage stems from covering urgent breaking news, ongoing city or state developments, responding to tips or actively seeking local interesting stories.

In the morning news meeting, the assignment desk editor briefs the staff on any local goings-on (the mayor is having a press conference, a city councilor sent out an email, the school superintendent is holding a board meeting, etc). The assignment editor gets this information usually from press releases sent out by organizations or offices.

Reporters then go around the table and pitch their story ideas, either from their own sources, new e-mails or calls they’ve received, or else their perusal of local area blogs or other news outlets.

From all of that input, news directors and producers decide what stories get prioritized. It’s a matter of trying to fit resources; there are only so many reporters and photographers to go around on any given day and news stories may be spread out over a far distance, or may occur to close together to gather (if there are 2 pressers and an opening ceremony all at 3 p.m., something probably has to give).

What makes the cut is decided on deployment of those resources, what might be of paramount interest to viewers, and often — most importantly — if there’s a way to personalize it, to have some emotional glue, to make a story of it rather than just chronicling a news event. A good newsroom tries to avoid having only ‘official sound’ whenever possible; it should be balanced by a personal story or reaction, how some new measure by the mayor or city government affects an individual, a personalized account of its impact.

“Why should I care” is a question often asked back to reporters at the meeting, to make them search for and articulate that connective angle.

In a breaking news scenario, the general m.o. is to gather facts first, then personal impact and official reaction (or vice versa, depending on who’s saying what when). If its an intriguing personal story that got pitched — via email, noticed on a blog or other source — then the reporter will confirm the facts via another source or subject involved in the story, and may look for other ‘official sound’ if needed (such as in consumer complaints stories, the reporter will go to the company involved in the alleged problem).

But notice in either case the importance of the human dimension, the personal story. Notice also how this meshes with the side benefits of the activities advocated in the earlier post: that by raising the civic presence and activity, you’re also helping create a bank of small, alternative Muslim stories, alternative experiences of Muslims.

It’s another grassroots-level blogging point that one can engage here: if you’re a Muslim blogger starting to write on civic issues, don’t be afraid at some point to chronicle those stories of Muslim civic engagement.

I must emphasize that this is in no way to be construed that civic duty should carry an ulterior motive. Just be aware that demystifying yourself to your community, showing in action that you genuinely care about and are willing to work for your civic betterment, may have a ripple effect beyond the all-important human-to-human connection that’s so paramount to build right now.

It varies from newsroom to newsroom and reporter to reporter, but the blogosphere is probably lower on the list of sources when they’re assembling info or looking for stories. That said, there are ways you can move that up the chain — by either demonstrating you have an interesting personal story yourself (or becoming aware of another one you can pitch), and/or being known as a particular credentialed voice.

Muslims And The Media

But do most Muslims really want to be that kind of long-term voice? Sadly, no, and it’s my belief that this mindset must change.

There is an extreme reticence among Muslim leaders to develop a lasting relationship with the press.

In a post following up on Ft. Hood on TAM, Sheila Musaji wrote :

In the meantime, I cringe every time someone asks me to explain why Maj. Hasan or any other Muslim criminal has committed some reprehensible act. I don’t know why. … Actually, I am amazed that intelligent people could possibly believe that it makes sense to ask any random Muslim to explain the actions of any one of the other 1.5 billion Muslims on earth, as if we are connected to each other like the Borg.

Dr. Aref Assaf, president of the American Arab Forum, expressed similar sentiments (among some otherwise excellent points) in his article “Please Do Not Call Me! Being an American Muslim when tragedy strikes“: “I’m utterly hurt and profoundly burdened by implications and the frequency of these questions from media outlets whenever some lunatic Muslim decides to commit a random act of violence,” he writes.

It’s a sentiment I genuinely respect, understand, and often feel as well; but keeping a larger endgame in view of bridge-building to a wider circle could help Muslim voices to push beyond this reaction.

Assaf articulates the uneasy relationship most Muslim voices have with the media:

I recall while talking to an editor of a large NJ paper, I wondered if my name was on their reporters’ hot list of people to call only whenever Muslim kill or bomb something around the world. I pleadingly, asked if he would ever consider calling me to comment on such trivial issues as my views on school choice, on my ever rising property taxes, on traffic hurdles. He almost innocently admitted that he has been so conditioned to think of me only as an Arab and a Muslim, not as a concerned and a taxpaying citizen who also worries about the environment, white collar crime, and political corruption.

But, as in any relationship, Muslims have to own their part — and the kind of personal civic activity I’ve advocated in the previous post and this one can help immeasurably to overcome the singular view of Muslims by the media. But it takes work: Dr. Assaf’s wish to be called on other civic issues won’t come true unless Muslims overcome their separatist stance and demonstrate that such concerns are germane to Muslims as well. We can’t have it both ways.

From a media point of view, our isolationism has sent a very mixed message, the outcome of which can be seen in media’s reluctance to view us as citizens. And while it may seem unfair that we’re not randomly called upon to share our civic views, our reluctance to participate as citizens means we have more work to do to overcome that perception. To establish a genuine civic concern and presence by Muslims and to increase the visibility of that presence can only by accomplished by deed.

The Muslim community has the ability and the power to reclaim and reset its identity (whether we have the will to do so by overcoming our isolationism and do good works for our cities and neighbors is another question, but I’m genuinely optimistic). Of course, there are tremendous semiotic and iconic obstacles to overcome, and building community and media relationships is a long-term process, but it is entirely within our grasp to stop playing the ‘victim of media’ card, set the example, create the alternative story, realign the perception. We can take back control of and own our public media destiny if we’re willing to do the work. We can blame the media all we want, but what have we offered them as alternatives?

“Verily, Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.” 13:11

Assaf offers several powerful observations throughout his post, yet in his closing paragraph he makes an elegant point then immediately destroys any hope of outreach to get his views disseminated:

We should honestly worry about what makes any citizen hate his country so intensely that he is ready to waste his life to express his anger? Till then, please do not call me. For, like you, I have not the answer.

This sends an ultimate mixed message, almost passive-aggressive in light of his previous request to be called on for community issues. If I worked in the newsroom and read such a statement, you can be quite sure I’ll take his request and not call him — ever again, on any issue, Muslim or not.

Interestingly, in another version of his article on NJ voices, the comments seem to bear out some of these observations, and I’m encouraged that some non-Muslims are seeking a more accessible Muslim media presence to turn to and are also noticing the lack of it. This marks an important point about identifying needs and responding to them that I’ll address later in this series.

If I’m a reporter or an assignment desk editor, I need someone or some group who’s willing to work with me. Who else can I call, who else is on the list? Where can I go to get a sense of the Muslim pulse?

The problem doesn’t lie just with the Muslim ummah, of course. The media does bear some role to play in the equation, but unless you’re an obviously partisan outlet or clear Islamophobe (Geller/Spencer), you’re not going to deliberately set out to paint an “all Muslims are evil” or a singular Muslim viewpoint. But with a very limited range of alternative and/or local Muslim experiences to draw from, media coverage options are limited. When they are found, they’re often not very satisfactory (the failure of strong, resonating messages from Muslim institutions I’ll address in the next post).

Compounding the problem for Islam and the media is that Islam is not structured in a denominational sense. This is very hard for western media to work around. We don’t ask one Christian to represent all Christians, because you can ask a Baptist or Protestant or Catholic or 7th-Day Adventist or Pentecostal or Evangelical or Quaker or Mormon for their take. The granularity of that denominational diversity gives a newsroom some readily identifiable, “go-to” starting points to get answers and specific viewpoints from any particular group.

Even a cursory sample of comments on posts throughout the Islamosphere reveals how diverse (or divided) the range of thought within the Muslim ummah is. That the level of discourse within the ummah isn’t always respectful is a significant point to ponder: we can’t very well preach that “Islam is a tolerant religion” when we don’t often respectfully tolerate differing views amongst ourselves. That sends another significantly mixed message.

From a newsroom standpoint, the relative lack of Islam’s denominational structure makes the range of Islam seem more unified than it really is. It’s very hard at a quick glance to even be aware of that diversity, let alone identify and isolate and understand it, or contact a spectrum of various representatives. Our tendency toward isolationism reinforces this problem, as do the messages we send out from a gut-level response when we feel on the defensive: “Islam is a religion of peace!” we decry, the subtext of which presents an apparent sense of unity that doesn’t in reality exist and forces us to later apologize for and/or begrudgingly admit that yes, there are fringe elements that aren’t adhering to central Islamic values.

A little bit of proactive education from Muslim bloggers and institutions could help here: we need to come clean at the outset in our blogs and statements to Western media about the level of diversity and debate within the Muslim ummah, and in some succinct objective fashion explain the diversity of thought and discourse. This is a challenge to do while trying to remain objective about your own particular position in that spectrum — and in any materials sent out, you need to disclose where you fit — but it’s a necessary undertaking. Mosques and institutions should prepare such materials and periodically hold a media outreach day. Such events would be welcomed by media outlets, as it goes a long way to meeting their need for clear, accessible information and context.

More on addressing media needs in the next post.

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With nine years experience in mainstream news media -- first in radio, then web and social media for both print and television -- Mustafa Stefan Dill was an early advocate and practitioner for applying social media techniques to mainstream journalism. Dill has lectured on online journalism and social change at the Indian Institute of Journalism and New Media, Bangalore, India and has been featured in Online Journalism Review, The Media Center's Morph blog, J-New Voices, motherpie.typepad.com, and participated as a panelist in a national web seminar by the American Press Institute. In August 2010, Dill planned his escape from the newsroom environment launched a new consultancy offering PR, social media and new media strategies for a wide range of clients, with a specialty in serving Muslim and interfaith organizations and NGOs working in Muslim regions. Dill reverted to Islam in 2002.

9 Comments

9 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Dr. Aref Assaf

    October 27, 2010 at 8:53 PM

    I welcome the opportunity to respond to your article about media penetration by Muslims especially in non Muslim countries. The burden of first generation Muslims is the political baggage their brought with them from their motherlands. They argue that they are in America for one reason only: to make money so that when they return home, they will be able to afford to live a decent life. This nomadic and transient mentality does not encourage long term concerns about the well being of the society in which they live. Their lives are temporary, expedient and their loyalties are if not unfounded, are at best divided with their homelands. This would be an acceptable price to pay if the first generation parents would encourage their American born children to benefit from the political choices inherent in a democratic country such as voting and running for office and or supporting those who believe in our cause.

    I am hopeful the second generation Muslims of America will recognize the need to be engaged, to speak up for their values, faith and heritage. It is not enough to demands our rights as citzens; it is just as reasonable that we fulfil our obligations as citzens. We need not more Muslim doctors. and professors. we need more journalist, politicians and media managers. For long we have allowed media moguls to define us and our issues. This needs to change and it is doable.

    True, media companies in the US are not seekers of justice, they are after all seekers of monetary compensation derived from advertising revenues. Justice if it achieved is a byproduct. Let us invest our money in owning large media outlets from which we can advocates for our just cause. Americans are by and large not dogmatic in their hatred of everything Islamic. This can be unlearned if we convey the message of Islam in its purest form. More importantly, we will succeeded in winning the hearts of many Americans if we provide tangible evidence such as improved economic relations, diminishing of anti-American sentiments when they do not castigate the entire Islamic faith for the acts of a few.

    there will come a time when American Muslims will assume their rightful place not on the political table of America but around it.

    While I appeared almost hopeless in the piece you quoted, the sentiments is tempered by prevailing realities.

    • Avatar

      fester225

      October 28, 2010 at 9:18 PM

      It sounds like the local mosques need to actively work to integrate incoming Muslims into the community, the whole community, Muslim as well as non-Muslim.

      Is there any precedent for this kind of social activism from a mosque?

      • Avatar

        Mustafa Stefan Dill

        October 29, 2010 at 12:28 AM

        Hi Fester ! :)
        not that I’m aware of, but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t. If there are, I’d love to know about such initiatives…

        • Avatar

          fester225

          October 29, 2010 at 7:06 AM

          Mustafa! :)

          My question was also intended to get an idea what the breadth of activities of a mosque typically are. In an American Christian church these can range from providing only worship services, to feeding the homeless, to virtually anything deemed appropriate for those ‘less fortunate’, or ‘in need’. (The extent of these activities is largely due to how activist the local minister is.)

          I know there is an obligation in Islam to give alms to the poor. Does it extend past giving money? Is there a way to make helping newcomers feel like part of their new American community part of this obligation? If there was, would anyone do it?

    • Avatar

      Mustafa Stefan Dill

      October 28, 2010 at 10:53 PM

      Dear Dr. Assaf,

      Thank you very much for the honor of your reply!

      I think your assessment of !st generation Muslims is accurate, and I share your optimism and call to action and professional diversity for the next generation (see the 1st part of the series).

      True, media companies in the US are not seekers of justice, they are after all seekers of monetary compensation derived from advertising revenues.

      The business model is ad-based, true, but the pop-culture fashionable construct that journalism has sacrificed the integrity of its mission to advertising interests is hugely overplayed, certainly at a local level. I have worked for nine years in print and TV newsrooms and have never encountered such conflict. The only adjustment I ever saw was a repositioning of an ad so that it wasn’t immediately adjacent to an investigative piece about the same client, but the integrity of the piece itself stood firm throughout the process of its development. The journalism ethos was never compromised.

      That said, if Muslims felt the buying of ads as a news influencer was in fact a real model, then why aren’t more Muslim businesses buying big ads?

      Let us invest our money in owning large media outlets from which we can advocates for our just cause.

      The problem with this, as I see it, is twofold. 1) Muslim media outlets tend to be consumed only by other Muslims; and 2) if you’re speaking of a massive news network launch, I’m not sure that would be a successful approach in America, which still wants its journalism to be “unbiased.” America is still uncomfortable with their news having an ideological filtration, as evidenced by the drummings doled out to Fox from the left or to NPR and PBS from the right.

      European media —newspapers in particular — have had openly -identified political ideologies springboard their news coverage for decades (compare the French Le Figaro and Liberation, for example), but everyone understands those parameters for what they are. America’s not there yet in terms of being comfortable with that kind of transparency, and until it is, a Muslim-based mainstream media launch would meet with resistance and suspicion.

      It’s my view that at this stage, working to build better relationships and a stronger presence with existing media outlets will yield more tangible, immediate results in terms of perception over launching a major outlet, though I would support such an initiative if the time and conditions were right.

      More importantly, we will succeeded in winning the hearts of many Americans if we provide tangible evidence such as improved economic relations, diminishing of anti-American sentiments when they do not castigate the entire Islamic faith for the acts of a few.

      there will come a time when American Muslims will assume their rightful place not on the political table of America but around it.

      Amin!

      While I appeared almost hopeless in the piece you quoted, the sentiments is tempered by prevailing realities.

      I am glad you’re more optimistic! and I truly understand the tension you expressed and that we all feel at times. My point in the piece (and forgive me, for I also make reference in part 3) is simply that as public representatives of our faith (and /or a culture with links to that faith), the connection with our media counterparts is a complexrelationship, with all that term implies, and how we treat it may have long term consequences.

      jazaakallah khair for your response!
      MSD

  2. Avatar

    abu Rumay-.s.a.

    October 28, 2010 at 3:37 AM

    We can take back control of and own our public media destiny if we’re willing to do the work. We can blame the media all we want, but what have we offered them as alternatives?

    Is it wrong to blame the one who is actively trying to portray an incorrect/false/distorted image, let us not de-synthesize this crucial issue. if any media outlet is making a story, the burden is on them to report it as it is (without clouting it with under/over tones), this is a basic principle of Journalism – Honesty, Truth, objectiveness..

    What is wrong with the news? I’m sure you know better than I, but this is what FAIR believes : http://www.fair.org/index.php?page=101

    Also, I’m not sure you can really prove your “isolationism” theory because for every example that you may have, there are multiple counter examples can be provided to prove the opposite so unless you can prove this by some real stats, its going to be difficult to sell in my view.

    Also, I don’t know if its really fair to dissect and refute a layman Muslim’s gut response to certain loaded media questions because they are only a reflection of that person’s understanding (whether right or wrong). But jazak Allahu khairun to media experts such as yourself to educate and advise us these matters.

    Lastly, the media very well knows the diversity within the Muslim community, this is not rocket science. However, I believe the unity playcard of “a single united muslim group” plays well into the hands of those outlets who take isolated events of fringe elements to claim that the whole group is also responsible or believes the same.

    looking forward to your next post for alternative solutions of media participation. Thanks again for the article.

    • Avatar

      Mustafa Stefan Dill

      October 29, 2010 at 12:22 AM

      if any media outlet is making a story, the burden is on them to report it as it is (without clouting it with under/over tones), this is a basic principle of Journalism – Honesty, Truth, objectiveness..

      What i’m advocating in this series is that working with the media is a relationship, and as in any relationship, burdens must be shared. It’s in our communities’ best interest to make it easier for them by understanding what they need ( this article) and being more effective at providing it (upcoming).

      Also, I’m not sure you can really prove your “isolationism” theory because for every example that you may have, there are multiple counter examples can be provided to prove the opposite so unless you can prove this by some real stats, its going to be difficult to sell in my view.

      But those multiple counter examples aren’t being adequately surfaced or made available for wider dissemination, and that’s something we can take an active role in shifting.

      Also, I don’t know if its really fair to dissect and refute a layman Muslim’s gut response to certain loaded media questions because they are only a reflection of that person’s understanding (whether right or wrong).

      But Dr. Assaf, as president of the American Arab Forum, isn’t a “layman Muslim”; in his position, he has a very specific public role as pointman for the AAF. That in turn is dependent on a good relationship with the media.

      Lastly, the media very well knows the diversity within the Muslim community, this is not rocket science.

      I diasgree. Unless you’re a worldwide organization with religious affairs and foreign affairs bureaus, your average assignment desk editor at your local metro TV affiliate will not know Shia from Sunni from Salafi from Sufi. At best, they may be aware that sometimes in the Middle East, Shias and Sunnis kill each other, but the range of thought and view within the American Muslim community is completely unknown to your local assignment editor.

      It’s precisely this monolithic, uninformed view that causes reactions such as those by Assaf and Musaji, which are completely understandable. In the context of building better relationships with the media, it’s in our best interest to help our local media be more informed.

      The lack of surfacing of the vibrant Muslim cross-section can also have an unexpected fallout: a conscientious newsroom, not wanting to portray Muslims as monolithic, may be forced to not seek any voice.

      With great grace and insight, our news director specifically vetoed down the suggestion post-Ft. Hood when a reporter wanted to get the “Muslim reaction”. She said that such a knee-jerk response — in addition to being an easy way out for a news story and reaching for low fruit — was, moreover, “its own discrimination.” I thought it was a wise, sensitive, and profoundly ethical call.

      And yet if a more publicly engaged Muslim citizenry was available and willing to speak, maybe we could have had a voice, a little part to counter the ongoing sentiment of “why aren’t Muslims speaking out?” By the media having no one to turn to, we lost an opportunity. It’s these kinds of gaps I’m working to close.

      However, I believe the unity playcard of “a single united muslim group” plays well into the hands of those outlets who take isolated events of fringe elements to claim that the whole group is also responsible or believes the same.

      Totally agree- and that’s why countering the monolithic perception is so important.

      looking forward to your next post for alternative solutions of media participation. Thanks again for the article.

      thanks– jazaakallah khair for reading and sharing your thoughts!

      MSD

  3. Pingback: Reclaiming The Perceptions Of Muslims, pt. 4 – Analyse Your Press Release; Serving Non-Muslims | MuslimMatters.org

  4. Pingback: Reclaiming the Perceptions Of Muslims, pt. 3 — How Muslim Organizations Fail With Media | MuslimMatters.org

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