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Muslims feel media reports involving them 'selective, biased, stereotypical, inaccurate'

By Moin Qazi*
The Covid-19 pandemic has put the medical doctors through one of the most gruelling tests of all time. They are on the frontlines of the battle to save human lives and are putting a truly brave show. Yet away from the battle lines, in the comfort confines, is another tribe of doctors that is engaged in an unusual combat. These are the communal doctors who are devising new medicines and tools for breeding the hate propaganda.
Leading them on the frontlines are some journalists who see in this pandemic a more incendiary fuel to stoke the communal agenda. The media has for long been engaged in a toxic propaganda against Muslims and this new calamity has led to a more lethal mutation of the communal virus.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, there have been so many instances of omissions on part of many groups, including governments and international bodies. It was quite understandable because we were not equipped to foresee the course of the trajectory. But the role of some journalists in pinning the blame on a particular community and assigning conspiracy labels to it only shows a deliberate bias. The hallmark of any great media is that , it always considers facts as sacred.
The damage to health, wealth, and well-being has already been enormous. This is like a world war, except in this case, we’re all on the same side. Hence instead of pitting one section of humanity against another we should make it a combined united fight.
There is a cottage industry of authors who keep the midnight oil burning to ensure that the flashlights on bad Muslims keep beaming. These are churned out by a well-oiled Islamophobia machine with financial backers, think-tanks, and misinformation experts who are constantly manipulating the already flawed image of what a Muslim is, of what Islam is. They are attacking the identity of Muslims, which is so diverse that it cannot possibly fit into a box.
They have not only ratcheted their anti-Muslim rhetoric but also made it more strident. In fact, the entire discourse is being orchestrated on predefined lines. To put it in the words of Jim Morrison, “Whoever controls the media controls the mind”.
In an ideal world, journalism is a profession of incredible integrity and journalists are among the most dexterous and skilled people in the world. We have all benefited from the work of persistent journalists who put life, limb, family and even sanity on the line in their pursuit of truth. There is no sane, decent, and democratic polity possible without journalists who challenge power, relentlessly pursue and disseminate the truth and always find the next story to tell.
The press once seemed to have a conscience, thanks to history’s painful social conflicts and questions of war and peace. The world, however, has changed, and many of us may be in the time warp of old values. Like all institutions, the media has also suffered in terms of its reputation.
Mark Twain once said: “Stupid people – who constitute the overwhelming majority of this and all other nations – believe and are convinced by what they get out of a newspaper, and there is where the harm lies.”
The crucial point is credibility. For the media to be credible it has to take responsibility for getting its facts right. That means digging deep, talking to a range of people to get the different sides of the story, and checking their facts rigorously. It should not hesitate to root out and expose lies, hypocrisy and corruption, but has to be sure of its facts before doing so.
There is widespread agreement among Muslims that media reports involving them are selective, biased, stereotypical and inaccurate.
If you want to know how many times Muslims have themselves condemned violence and extremism, you just have to Google with common phrases associated with Islamic extremism and you will be surprised by the thousands of Muslims, their institutions, scholars, leaders, priests and governments that are condemning and fighting violence, hatred and terrorism while assuring everyone that this does not have anything to do with the peaceful message of Islam.
It is only the voices of extremism that are being microphoned and the saner voices of liberalism and pluralism are totally obscured giving a very distorted slant to the whole discourse.
In the context of growing media attention given to Islam and Muslims, there is a critical issue with the role that the media plays in reinforcing certain negative stereotypical images of the community. There is widespread agreement among Muslims that media reports involving them are selective, biased, stereotypical and inaccurate.
Voices of extremism are being microphoned, but saner voices of liberalism and pluralism are obscured giving a distorted slant to discourse
Majority of Muslims are moderate, peaceful people who have infact been more affected by terrorism and violence than non-Muslims. But the media is not interested in this positive news. It has constructed its own stereotype of a Muslim and uses selective stories to reinforce this stereotype. So what is the purpose of the mainstream media if they are not going to fulfil their mission of informing the public? Money.
The collective media is a multibillion-dollar monolith. It is an industry that is managed by industry barons who want to promote their own ideology and feed on firing information at the viewer at a machinegun pace, and when that happens, a lot of context is lost. Many of the people who work in media have no clue how to tell a story at street level and when it is a story about Islamic issues, they are even more clueless.
The press follows a familiar narrative everywhere. Muslims are extremists, intolerant and their scriptures promote violence. The distorted images of Islam stem partly from a lack of understanding of Islam by non-Muslims and partly from the failure by Muslims to explain themselves. The results are predictable -- hatred feeds on hatred. The 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. Reacting to the hate and fear of non-Muslims, they 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 out. We need sanity in all quarters to let the truth prevail.
The media can play a very critical role in our goal of achieving this objective. 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 the 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. There is the possibility that in the heat of debate objectivity gets diluted. It is necessary that both faith leaders and journalists appreciate and understand each other's constraints.
News media relies 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 nuance.
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 practices, 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. For their part, Muslim leaders can play a very meaningful role in sensitizing the media to the various complexities that Islamic issues have. Broader dialogue can help in a nuanced understanding of the whole issue.
Journalists need to rededicate themselves to the original mission which made journalism a noble calling of so many great men. It is their commitment to the values of liberty and freedom that earned the press the status of the Fourth Estate alongside the other three custodians of free speech and democracy.
It is time journalists reaffirmed their commitment to the credo of Joseph Pulitzer III (1913-1993), the founder of the world’s gold standard in journalism, the Pulitzer Prize: 'We will illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times.'
---
*Development expert

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