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Media Coverage of Islam in America

By Haley Poland

The introductory session of the seminar was designed to broadly present, through the perspectives of three panelists, the problems facing media coverage of Muslims in the United States.

Saaqib Rangoonwala, the news editor at KFWB News 980, quoted Franklin D. Roosevelt ("The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.") to illustrate that fear of the unknown is the core problem with media coverage of Islam.

Rangoonwala said that if a person does not know about something, he tends to be scared and stomp it out, as with squashing spiders.

Despite efforts to be fair, accurate, and balanced, it is inevitable that reporters will be criticized because the readers perceive a bias, he said. “The bottom line is that we have to accept criticism because it can be immensely constructive.”

Negative events tend to bring press coverage, which is why Islam has been in the forefront since September 11th.  Because the media focuses on negative events enacted by Muslims against the Western world, there is a perceived opposition of Western values by all of Islam.

Rangoonwala argued that issues in the media unrelated to Muslims also have an impact on how they are covered. The media business has become concentrated on the quest for profits and ratings.  The stories are constrained because news outlets hesitate to cover stories that do not drive ratings.  Furthermore, the reporters are constrained because they are given less time to do more work.

Rangoonwala said that studies show 45 percent of Americans have an unfavorable view of Muslims. Misperception is the primary cause, he argued, and organizations like the Council on American-Islamic Relations are essential in that they are dedicated to correcting those misperceptions in media coverage of Muslims.

He added that the propagation of misconstrued concepts has also tainted media coverage.

"Jihad has come to mean ‘holy war,’” he said, “though it actually means to strive, struggle, or put forth effort.”

Publications such as InFocus, where Rangoonwala sits on the editorial board, supplement what is lacking in the mainstream press. He said this is clearly not enough because most of the readers of such publications are Muslims.

The second panelist was Aslam Abdullah, the editor of the Muslim Observer and the founding director of the Muslim electorates’ Council of America.

Abdullah contended that a comprehensive, systematic study of the coverage of Islam throughout history could be hugely informative for those trying to cover Islam today. 

"We can make sweeping generalizations, such as that all media portrayal of Islam is negative,” he said, “but that is based primarily on assumptions.”

He noted two visible trends in media coverage that misrepresent Islam, but are not deliberately negative.  First, coverage has focused primarily on Islamic political fundamentalism, with “fundamentalism” being indiscriminately interchanged with “terrorism.”

Second, Abdullah said that writers have failed to make distinctions between culture and religion.  He gave the example of genital mutilation being presented as Islamic rather than social.

He went onto say that the treatment of Islam by the American media reflects how the media treats all new groups – unsympathetically and often with hostility.

Abdullah cited four steps to correct this:

  1. The media establishment must be exposed to comparative religions.
  2. An effort must be made by those covering Islam to know one of the four dominant Islamic languages.
  3. Coverage must make a distinction between those writing for propaganda and others.
  4. A systematic study on the media portrayal of history across centuries must be undertaken.

Abdullah said that until these things happen, we cannot say that certain organizations are doing things to defame Islam.

The final panelist was Teresa Watanabe, a staff writer at the Los Angeles Times who covers ethnic and immigrant communities.  She emphasized the importance of contextual accounts.

"It is a religious, political, and sociological story,” she said.

While a journalist should be familiar with the Five Pillars of Islam and other basics, she stressed that Islam has many variations, particularly Islam in America. Journalists must not generalize across Islam because such ideological diversity exists, even within one mosque.

Watanabe promoted the use of profiles as a tool to help journalists tell Islam’s real story.

"I’ve tried to get at adversity through profiles to humanize the stories,” she said.

Regarding political stories, she made a case for more coverage of Muslims’ struggle for political influence on foreign policy. She noted that almost no Muslims are in positions to effect change on a national level.

"We need American Muslims to advise us, shape policy, and interpret what it means for Islam,” she said.

In addition to increased coverage of the religious and political stories, Watanabe encouraged the journalists to pursue the sociological stories, such as assimilation across generations.

As the panelists answered questions from the journalism fellows following the panelist presentations, several additional ideas for ways to cover Islam in America emerged.

While Watanabe reminded the journalists that the adage “be persistent” is important in gaining the right information from people in the Muslim world, all the panelists agreed that access to certain sources can be problematic. 

Rangoonwala, however, assured that “you can always find people willing to talk.”

One journalist at the conference, Omar Mullick of The Muslim Link Newspaper in College Park, MD, said that to circumvent the fear that many Muslims have that the media will misrepresent them, a reporter needs to give specifics about what he or she is going to print.

"They’re assuming you will write rubbish, so you need to give a gesture of trust first and tell them why you’re writing,” he said.

The panelists agreed that journalists must find people to speak on behalf of small segments, such as at the grassroots level with students on college campuses.  Mullick echoed that Muslim Student Associations at universities are especially valuable resources because many of their members are Muslims between worlds: the Islam of their parents and the American Islam.

Underreported stories included how the “rockstars” of Muslim leadership are shaping belief, and how American Muslims are beginning to place more weight on “homegrown” Islam, rather than Middle Eastern Islam.


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