By Moin Qazi, New Age Islam
1 September 2015
The sudden wave of interest in Islam across the world seemed to commence just after September 11, 2001. The Indian as well as the Western media, television as well as print, devoted reams of paper and time slots to report incidents ranging from stories of conversion to Islam and the booming sales of copies of the Quran. Somewhere along this line, Muslims and the media became a hot topic of discussion at various forums.
In this context of growing media attention given to Islam and Muslims, a critical issue is that of the role that the media plays in reinforcing certain negative stereotypical images of the community. The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam among non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable: the hatred feeds on hatred. 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. They, reacting to the hate and fear of non –Muslims, 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. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail. .In our goal of achieving this objective, the media can play a very critical role.
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 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. Moreover, the internal diversity and grassroots nature of faith communities frequently eludes observation. There is more to religion than the set of leaders who officially or unofficially seem to represent it. Viewing religious communities as a constellation of institutions and leaders ignores the diversity of beliefs, opinions, political and social views and day-to-day experiences of faith among millions of people around the world. These realities are relevant to achieving accuracy in covering religious diversity and trends. It is equally imbuement on the media that it remains sensitive to the diversity of opinion on any religious issue .There is every possibility that in the heat of the debate objectivity gets diluted
It is necessary that both faith leaders and journalists appreciate and understand each other’s constraints.
Constraints of Journalists
1. Time constraints. Time in the newsroom is limited. Journalists are working to tight deadlines, and there is limited space in publications and time on air to present key information to audiences in a way that is easily understandable. These constraints are especially present when it comes to breaking news.
2. Lack of knowledge and understanding. Newspapers don’t always have the experts available to cover a minority religious issue. Another noted that reporters are not always “sufficiently armed” to do their work, because they lack appropriate training.
3. Confusion between political and religious issues. Reporting often reflects a blurring of lines between political or governmental issues and religious issues. For one thing, religion is often “politicized and commercialized,” as one person put it, leading to confusion between the religious vs. the political motives of religious and political leaders. Secondly, because religious affiliation is often a marker of identity much like ethnicity or language, conflicts between communities over issues of resource distribution or political representation can often take on religious overtones.
4. Drama and action sell. News media rely 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 a nuanced piece clarifying the complexities.
5. Reliance on common sound-bites and memes. The stereotyping of religious people, beliefs and communities is not always intentional or even overt. Journalists sometimes rely on widely-used terminology without considering the broader implications. For example, referring to “Islamic terrorism” can make terrorism seem Islamic, just as referring to terrorists as “extremist Muslims” can make terrorists seem extremely Muslim.
6. Religion is a huge, complex subject. 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 practice, 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.
Best Practises for Journalists Reporting Faith Matters
There are best practices that reporters can follow to ensure that they make the most of their opportunities when covering religion and belief in specific situations—whether reporting on the internal affairs of religious communities, religious minorities, conflict, or when selecting sources. Participants in the first session noted several broad concepts that reporters and editors should bear in mind when covering religion in general:
1. Religion appears in all kinds of news stories. While it’s not always possible to devote resources to in-depth features about (for example) the experience of faith, religion and religious people are touched upon in many different kinds of news stories, including breaking news. This means that there is always an opportunity to cover the issue accurately.
2. Distinguish politics and religion. Journalists should tease out whether certain actions and statements are religiously or politically motivated, and explore the connections between motives and justifications. Broadly, an effort should be made to distinguish the ostensibly religious from the political, and recognize when something ostensibly political is motivated by belief. A position attributed to belief may in turn be situational or political, and generally shared by only a subset of a group or population. Making clear the prevalence or proportionality of a view or position is an integral part of re porting on it. Journalists are always encouraged to dig deeper.
3. Media should mirror the public and society. The news media should reflect the diversity of the public they serve, including the concerns and voices of minorities, including religious minorities. Again, these perspectives can be included in all kinds of news stories and need not be limited to special features. Journalists working on a story must be determined to stay objective, throughout the period of research and investigation. To avoid taking a position, both or multiple sides of the story must be presented. If people or organizations are involved in wrongdoings, then their view as well as the views of those facing the repercussions of their actions must be made clear. It is not up to the journalist to help shape the reader's perspective, especially, while reporting a story or doing a feature, therefore, one should avoid taking a stand.
4. Countries are becoming more diverse. Religious diversity is growing in many places around the world, and this includes the presence of nonreligious people. News media should be aware of the possibly changing demographics of their societies and be inclusive of all voices, even if only for their continued commercial viability.
5. Do not simply cater to audience expectations. The news media should represent and reflect the public they serve, but this does not mean that they should cater to audience expectations or stereotypes. Serving the public interest does not necessarily mean giving the public what it is interested in. Just as celebrity news should not necessarily be prioritized just because it sells, news media should not pander to fears and stereotypes or sensationalize stories just because these might be popular.
6. Consider loaded language. Journalists should be aware that even common terms and expressions might be “loaded” and have different meanings for different people. For example, referring to a violent attacker or someone inciting hatred as a “Muslim extremist,” “Buddhist terrorist,” or “fundamentalist Christian” could imply that people who are very Muslim, Buddhist or Christian support violence and hatred. Beware of accidentally stereotyping people, or assuming that religious identity is the relevant factor. The way group identity is defined and deployed is a choice that should follow best practice rather than mirroring common practices. The vocal pitch and tonal language of the newsreader also impart meanings and nuances to the content. What is ironic is that although media causes a lot of angst by revealing what is on the other side of the curtain, or creating desires that seem frivolous, it is rarely a tool that brings about a balance and harmony between diverse interests and communities.
7. Report “good” and “bad” news. Good news should not oust the bad news, but neither should it be forgotten. A story should be, first and foremost, accurate. It should also be newsworthy. However, a news piece can be timely, proximate, impactful, necessary, interesting and meet other criteria for newsworthiness, without necessarily being “bad”. As a journalist one must always tread the path of breaking news carefully. In an attempt to break news or create exclusive stories, many journalists leave objectivity, professional ethics and personal integrity behind. Exaggerating facts, presenting just one side of the argument or sensationalizing stories is bad journalism and one must steer clear of the factors that lead to confusion and misrepresentation.
8. Provide context. It is neither unusual nor wrong for news media to have an explicit editorial slant or a specific mission. It is also the right of journalists to exercise their consciences in their reporting. Nonetheless, it is important for these views to be placed in context so that audiences are presented with a fair depiction of all sides. Audiences may be able to judge an issue fairly, based on available facts
9. Reporting on belief and religion is like reporting on any issue. Religious people and communities should be treated with the same sensitivity and respect for privacy and personal opinion as any other individuals. Religious leaders and institutions should be subjected to the same level of scrutiny as any other figures or organizations in the public sphere. In all cases, knowledge of the relevant issues, institutions, leaders and—in this case—beliefs are a necessary part of the journalist’s toolkit. Generalizing or stereotyping about members of a certain community should be avoided. When covering the religion-related aspects of a story, apply the same professional standards that would be applied to any complex, nuanced issue.
10. Be wary of perpetuating voices of hate: News is news and media outlets must independently determine which information is important for their audiences. Does the shock value of covering a certain story contribute to stereotyping and undermine interreligious relations?
11. Remember the role of the media. It is the job of news media to respond to the needs of the public by providing news and information in the public interest, reflecting the diversity of opinion in the society it serves. While news outlets only survive if they sell, journalists should avoid sensational stories that perpetuate stereotypes, misrepresent groups or individuals, or otherwise present a skewed view of people or events.
Proactive Role for Faith Leaders
On their part, Muslim leaders can a very meaningful role in sensitizing the media to the various complexities that Islamic issues have .A broader dialogue can help in a nuanced understanding of the whole issue.
1. Muslim organizations need to be professional in their public relations, something that few of them actually are. They need to have staff who 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 'mainline' media and thereby help articulate the Muslim voice and to counter anti-Muslim stereotypes and disinformation.
2. Frequent meetings of leaders of Muslim community organizations with the editorial chiefs of non-Muslim newspapers and television channels will help develop a healthy rapport with them. It is often the case that whenever a Muslim group organizes a press meet, it is only Muslim journalists who are invited, leaving out the non-Muslim journalists. This ghetto mentality has to be changed.
3. 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. Articles generated out of such research projects can be sent to various newspapers. Muslim community organizations must seriously consider establishing research centres that specialize in social science research on the Indian Muslims, something that is woefully lacking today. This research can then be made more publicly accessible through the mass media.
Moin Qazi is a well known banker, author and journalist .He holds doctorates in Economics and English .He received an Honorary D Litt at the World Congress of Poets at Istanbul in 1991.He is author of several books on Islam including bestselling biographies of Prophet Muhammad and Caliph Umar. He writes regularly for several international publications and was Visiting Fellow at the University of Manchester .He is also a recipient of UNESCO World Politics Essay Gold Medal and Rotary International’s Vocational Excellence Award. He is based in Nagpur
Haq Se Agar
Gharz Hai To Zaiba Hai Kya Ye Baat
Islam Ka Muhasiba, Yourap Se Darguzar!
(And if your goal be truth, Is this the right road—
Europe’s faults all glossed,
and all Islam’s held to so strict an audit?)