It is the duty of journalists to inform and educate. But when it comes to Islam and the Muslim community -- in the U.S. and across the world -- news outlets have far too often served to spread misinformation and perpetuate prejudice. Whether it’s networks running segments asking if Islam is a violent religion or anchors demanding Muslim guests account for the acts of religious extremists, Islamophobia crops up in coverage whenever terrorism or the Middle East are in the news.
Some of the bad coverage is the result of willful prejudice and ignorance; it’s hard to imagine any amount of information getting the Sean Hannitys and Bill O’Reillys of the world to stop spreading hate.
But a good portion of the problem simply stems from journalists not knowing enough, which leaves them ill-equipped to report on everything from the Syrian refugee crisis to the Paris attacks. While no sector of the profession is immune from Islamophobia, the problem tends to be particularly pronounced on television, where presenters are often tasked with filling in airtime in an information vacuum.
Here are five ways journalists -- particularly those who report on issues that touch on the Muslim community -- can make sure they're accurately representing a community made up of 1.6 billion people worldwide.
1. Visit A Mosque
The heart of the problem with the media’s coverage of Muslims is that most of us simply do not know enough about Islam. It is our duty to inform ourselves -- rather than Muslims’ duty to correct journalists’ misconceptions -- and Islamic leaders across the country have graciously opened their doors to help the public better understand their faith. We must take these opportunities, and continuously seek to improve our understanding of Islam in all its diversity. That means formal instruction in the history and politics of the Middle East or, at the very least, checking out guides like “100 Questions and Answers About Muslim Americans,” a resource guide from Michigan State University School of Journalism’s series on cultural competence. (There’s also a guide on Arab Americans.)
A related point: Those of us in the media must cultivate personal relationships with the Muslim members of our communities -- the greatest antidote to prejudice there is. One of the primary reasons attitudes toward gay couples changed so precipitously over the last decade was that as more and more gays and lesbians came out of the closet, more Americans knew someone who was gay. The tenor of the coverage of Muslims and the Islamic world would be far better if each member of the media had a close friend who practiced the faith.
2. Be Careful Whose Views You Give A Platform To
Among the more harmful misconceptions about the role of media is that it’s our duty to provide “balance” and let the audience decide between opposing points of view. In some instances -- say, if lawmakers are debating between a cap-and-trade system and a carbon tax as ways to reduce air pollution -- this template for fair coverage makes sense.
But far too often, “balance” in news coverage has meant providing a platform for ideologues to spew racist garbage. Inviting Islamophobic activists like Pamela Geller, whose organization is classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, on your network to “balance out” the views of a Muslim scholar is not serving to inform the public. It implicitly communicates that these views should have equal weight, which they shouldn't, and gives Gellar access to millions of viewers.
When television producers are assembling the members of a panel, they are setting the terms of the debate -- and whom they include in the conversation matters. Years of producers inviting climate change skeptics to challenge the scientific consensus that human activity is changing the planet is why only 49 percent of Americans think humans are responsible for climate change.
In short: Don’t give bigotry a platform.
3. Challenge Prejudice And Debunk Outright Lies
The reason it’s so important for journalists to arm themselves with information is not only so they themselves make sure not to perpetuate prejudice, it’s also so they can challenge it when they’re confronted with it.
One of the reasons it’s so compelling to watch religious scholar Reza Aslan parry with pundits and television anchors is that he’s unafraid to identify outright lies and misconception and challenge them with information. For instance, when confronted with the idea that Islam is inherently degrading to women, Aslan points out that Muslim-majority countries have elected female heads of state seven times. The U.S.? Zero.
As Donald Trump has become more extreme in his views, the media has started to call him on his lies -- Muslims did not, as the reality TV star claims despite all evidence to the contrary, celebrate in New Jersey following the 9/11 attacks. Journalists shouldn’t be afraid to simply say he’s lying.
4. Choose Your Words Carefully
When journalists use phrases like “Islamic terrorism,” they are implicitly conflating two concepts. While this term is in common use, it is the duty of those of us in the media to be more precise in our use of language than the general public. We should refer to violent radicals like the ones who carried out the attacks in Paris as what they are: religious extremists.
To that end, some outlets have argued for the use of the Arabic acronym "Daesh" instead of the Islamic State (also called ISIS). The idea is to avoid implying that what the terrorists have created in Syria and Iraq is an actual "state" or actually "Islamic." Another option is to use a qualifier like the "self-described" Islamic State.
Journalists must brush up on their vocabulary when it comes to Islam and terrorism. Here’s a reference guide from Muslim Americans on defining terrorism put out by the Department of Homeland Security.
5. Provide Context
In the age of the Internet -- with conduits for information like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube giving the public direct access to raw information -- the role of the media has changed. It’s no longer just to “report the facts,” which the public is bombarded with on a daily basis. We must contextualize what’s out there.
Concretely, this means counteracting the impulse to flatten the distinctions between the world’s 1.6 billion Muslims.
The Syrian refugee crisis offers a prime example. The attacks in Paris had little to do with the exodus from the war-torn country, but the moment a Syrian passport was found among the evidence in the recent Paris attacks, the two issues became conflated.
Journalists at the time did a poor job of pointing out that terrorists are highly unlikely to infiltrate the U.S. via the country's refugee system, which puts people in direct contact with the FBI. Had the media been more willing to stress that these are separate issues, perhaps more than half of the governors in U.S. states would not so easily have pledged not to accept some of the globe’s most desperate people.
For journalists whose work touches on the Muslim community, the overarching point is this: Rhetoric has consequences, especially when you’re carrying a megaphone.