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

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.