Media portrayal of the Islamic religion often focuses on terrorist groups or violence. A group of journalists gathered Tuesday to discuss why this is the case.
Hosted by the Duke Islamic Center, the panel discussion featured four journalists with experience covering Muslim life—Abigail Hauslohner from the Washington Post, David Graham from The Atlantic, Nermeen Shaikh from Democracy Now!, an independent non-profit news organization, and Mehdi Hasan from Al Jazeera, a news organization based in Qatar.
“There is an association between Muslims and violence that seems almost natural now,” Shaikh said.
She argued that the media presents terrorist attacks by Muslims in an “ahistoric” manner—forgetting historical context and structural forces that influence individuals’ decisions to engage in terrorism.
There is also a tendency to focus exclusively on suicidal bombings, which have drastically increased in recent years, Shaikh explained. From 1982 to 2001, there were a total of two suicide attacks in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, but from 2002 to 2014, there were 3,215 attacks in these countries, resulting in almost 30,000 deaths, she noted.
However, she said media coverage portrays suicidal terrorism as much more horrifying than other forms of violence, such as drone attacks carried out by the U.S. government.
“For many, the suicide bomber has come to signify a culture and propensity toward such violence,” she said.
Shaikh also noted that the principal victims of suicide bombings have been Muslim, but when these victims are mentioned, their deaths do not “achieve the same level of spectacle or the same degree of horror or moral condemnations.” The media therefore fosters a “hierarchy of death”—in which some victims are portrayed as more important than others.
To combat this, deep journalism on the true, everyday lives of Muslims is crucial, Shaikh said.
Hauslohner is one reporter aiming to increase such representation of the Islamic community. She covers Islamic and Arab affairs in the U.S. for the Washington Post—which did not have a beat devoted to the topic until she took it on.
“My goal is to bring people into the homes of Muslims, and thereby further educate the American population about a minority that is often misunderstood,” she said.
Although the media is commonly criticized for a lack of positive stories about Muslims, Hauslohner said she does not intentionally look to portray Muslims in a positive light but rather to report accurately and fairly on their communities.
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Hauslohner also noted that journalists need to question law enforcement officials who report that a criminal “was radicalized”—which is used almost exclusively to refer to Muslim suspects.
“When I hear that phrase, I think about someone being bitten by a zombie,” she said. “We need to ask law enforcement what specifically they are talking about when they use those terms.”
Hauslohner also said that more newsrooms should create beats devoted to Muslim life and hire more diverse staffs, a call echoed by Graham.
“There are way too many people who look like me in newsrooms,” Graham said.
Graham explained that media coverage often focuses on violence and chaos because that is what draws readers' attention. However, this creates a narrative that leaves out the everyday lives of Muslims.
A lack of expertise on Islamic affairs among journalists also empowers “faux experts” who claim to be reputable sources, he noted. Reporters who are knowledgeable about Muslim life are especially needed because of President Donald Trump’s rhetoric that “demonizes” Muslims.
Moving forward, Graham encouraged people from diverse backgrounds to become involved in media, which will help foster different perspectives.
Hasan also noted that audience members should expose themselves to a variety of viewpoints and become better informed about current events.
“We are increasingly putting ourselves in silos and cutting ourselves off from things we don't agree with,” he said. “That’s a very dangerous road to go down.”