Last December a new report from the Washington Post declared that “researchers have found again and again that [news] coverage of Muslims in the American and global media is predominantly negative.” In the wake of this, Hannah Allam, who is a journalist specializing in covering the American Muslim beat, offers these tips to her colleagues.
1. In seeking the perspectives of Muslims, look beyond the mosques:
According to a Pew Research Center survey, 4 in 10 American Muslims attend a mosque weekly. About 30 percent of American Muslims go to a mosque only a few times a year, and about 25 percent do not go at all. Ms. Allam thus cautions journalists against talking to Muslims in a mosque as the only sources for a story about Islam in America. “When you rely only on the mosque for sources, you are getting views that are typically more conservative and orthodox, and they don’t represent the full spectrum of Islamic practice in the U.S.,” she says.
2. Before choosing to use an Arabic word in a story, think about why you’re choosing it:
When reporting on Islam for English-speaking news outlets, many journalists use Arabic terms or other foreign words such as “Allah,” “hijab” or “Sharia.” She emphasizes that these terms might be fairly well known but are certainly not widely understood. If you’re thinking about using foreign terms, ask if there is a more accessible word, she says.
3. Don’t overgeneralize:
American Muslims are a highly diverse group. There are many Muslim subcultures, traditions and practices… Ms. Allam says: “Try to stay away from writing about ‘the Muslim community.’ There’s no such thing. The 3.5 million Muslims in this country come from a variety of communities with different practices and beliefs.” (Editors note: which is why MOST always refers to the “Muslim communities”).
4. Be careful about portraying Islam as a roadblock to personal achievements:
Ms. Allam recommends that journalists ask themselves if a potential story subject would be newsworthy if it weren’t for his or her Muslim identity. “If the person isn’t newsworthy apart from being Muslim, why are you writing about them?” She explains that it made sense to report on the first Muslim women in Congress because they represented a big milestone. But some stories focusing on Muslim women’s accomplishments can feel “contrived and condescending,” she says, such as features on Muslim women playing basketball or soccer, who are portrayed as newsworthy just because they are wearing headscarves.
5. Make an effort to include Muslim voices in many types of stories:
On the other hand, Ms. Allam encourages reporters to include Muslim voices in stories that are not explicitly about Islam. Quote them in stories about topics other than religion, hate crimes or national security, she says. “That will show readers the diversity of their professions — for example, call a Muslim doctor or a Muslim fashion designer and so on,” she says.
6. Showcase diversity in your image choices, too:
While many resource-constrained newsrooms have a shortage of photographers, it’s important not to rely on stock photos of random women in head coverings. In the interest of avoiding stereotypes, there are many other ways in which Muslims can be represented. “I seldom see pictures like those of my brothers, who served as U.S. Marines,” Ms. Allam says. (Editors note: See accompanied photo).