A Long Way to Go: A “Predestined” Media

The media has improved its coverage in recent years. An increasing number of networks and newspapers have religion reporters or … Continued

The media has improved its coverage in recent years. An increasing number of networks and newspapers have religion reporters or advisers. However, since its main drivers (market share and maximization of profits) are media coverage, it is “predestined” to be unbalanced or biased.

The emphasis on “headline events” often means a predominant focus on the negative, sensational, violent. The “dark side” of religion predominates over coverage of religions more transcendent and transformative aspects. This is reflected across the religious spectrum. Mainstream evangelicals are eclipsed by the preferential coverage given to more militant and strident evangelicals like Pat Robertson who can be counted on for provocative sound bites. Warith Deen Muhammad, leader of the majority of African American Muslims has often been eclipsed by the more combative Louis Farrakhan. Much needed coverage of the pedophilia problems of the Catholic Church were rarely complimented by stories that also show the faith that informs the lives of most Catholics.

Most glaringly in recent years, Islam and Muslims have come to be viewed primarily through the lens of religious extremism and terrorism. Media tend to focus disproportionately on this dangerous and deadly minority who threaten global security and offer minimal coverage of the faith and lives of the mainstream majority of Muslims. Prominent media commentators use Islamophobic (anti-Muslim) language and make outrageous unsubstantiated charges that responsible editors allow regarding Judaism and Christianity. There is a growing propensity in the media in the name of balanced coverage of Islam and Muslims to have a “counter voice” on virtually any story. Especially favored are ex-Muslims, those who publicly repudiate Islam and like some prominent non-Muslim ideologues do not distinguish (as they would when talking about other faiths) between mainstream Islam and religious extremism but rather see the religion of Islam itself as inherently flawed and dangerous.

“Balance” has come to mean that any discussion of Islam and Muslims include someone who is a “militant critic.” Yet, we don’t expect that every discussion of religion include an atheist, that every discussion of the meaning of Passover or Easter include someone who will deny the historicity or relevance of these beliefs and rituals, that every panel on some aspect of Jewish or Christian faith and belief include “critics” with preference given to those who have rejected the faith and are often not experts as much as “professional critics,” that is, make a career of slamming their former faith. While criticism and dissent are important and must be heard, they are not necessary or relevant to every story or report.

Notably absent in the mainstream media is coverage of Islam and Muslims is coverage of the erosion of civil liberties. While stories on global terrorism and domestic threats are important to us all, at the same time how many stories have gone one step further and focused on the thousands of Muslims indiscriminately arrested, detained, monitored and interviewed and not found guilt or released for lack of evidence; the number of Islamic charities shut down but despite the passage of years not successfully prosecuted; the continued detention of Muslims like Prof. Sami al-Arian, whose jury verdict as well as the post-trial agreement forged by Justice Department and Defense attorneys were ignored by the trial judge.

Since 9/11, I am constantly asked (or the charge is made): “Why don’t Muslims in America and globally speak out against religious violence and terrorism?” To which my response is that the absence of such statements is either due to the fact that Muslims do not speak out or that, as is the case, the media too often does not find these stories “newsworthy.” I then refer them to internet sites like Beliefnet and others where these statements may be found.

Inadequate media coverage is compounded by the fact that many, though certainly not all, reporters come to stories with little or no background on religions and the very topics they cover. This was a major reason why after 9/11, I wrote the book, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.

Is there more media coverage of religion today than in the past? Yes. Are there reporters and stories that make an important contribution to better understanding? Yes. However, are there serious and substantial problems resulting in a dangerous bias in the coverage provided by many media outlets? Most assuredly, Yes. We still have a long way to go in a world in which in many societies, religion has become a more pronounced presence and factor in personal and public life, in domestic and international politics.

The emphasis on “headline events” often means a predominant focus on the negative, sensational, violent. The “dark side” of religion predominates over coverage of religion’s more transcendent and transformative aspects.

This is reflected across the religious spectrum. Mainstream evangelicals are eclipsed by the preferential coverage given to more militant and strident evangelicals like Pat Robertson who can be counted on for provocative sound bites.

Warith Deen Muhammad, leader of the majority of African-American Muslims has often been eclipsed by the more combative Louis Farrakhan. Much needed coverage of the pedophilia problems of the Catholic Church were rarely complimented by stories that also show the faith that informs the lives of most Catholics.

Most glaringly in recent years, Islam and Muslims have come to be viewed primarily through the lens of religious extremism and terrorism. Media tend to focus disproportionately on this dangerous and deadly minority who threaten global security and offer minimal coverage of the faith and lives of the mainstream majority of Muslims.

Prominent media commentators use Islamophobic (anti-Muslim) language and make outrageous unsubstantiated charges that responsible editors allow regarding Judaism and Christianity. There is a growing propensity in the media in the name of balanced coverage of Islam and Muslims to have a “counter voice” on virtually any story.

Especially favored are ex-Muslims, those who publicly repudiate Islam and like some prominent non-Muslim ideologues do not distinguish (as they would when talking about other faiths) between mainstream Islam and religious extremism but rather see the religion of Islam itself as inherently flawed and dangerous.

“Balance” has come to mean that any discussion of Islam and Muslims include someone who is a “militant critic.” Yet, we don’t expect that every discussion of religion include an atheist, that every discussion of the meaning of Passover or Easter include someone who will deny the historicity or relevance of these beliefs and rituals, that every panel on some aspect of Jewish or Christian faith and belief include “critics” with preference given to those who have rejected the faith and are often not experts as much as “professional critics,” that is, make a career of slamming their former faith.

While criticism and dissent are important and must be heard, they are not necessary or relevant to every story or report.

Notably absent in the mainstream media is coverage of Islam and Muslims is coverage of the erosion of civil liberties. While stories on global terrorism and domestic threats are important to us all, at the same time how many stories have gone one step further and focused on the thousands of Muslims indiscriminately arrested, detained, monitored and interviewed and not found guilt or released for lack of evidence? Or stories on the number of Islamic charities shut down but despite the passage of years not successfully prosecuted; the continued detention of Muslims like Professor Sami al-Arian, whose jury verdict as well as the post-trial agreement forged by Justice Department and Defense attorneys were ignored by the trial judge?

Since 9/11, I am constantly asked (or the charge is made): “Why don’t Muslims in America and globally speak out against religious violence and terrorism?” To which my response is that the absence of such statements is either due to the fact that Muslims do not speak out or that, as is the case, the media too often does not find these stories “newsworthy.” I then refer them to internet sites like Beliefnet and others where these statements may be found.

Inadequate media coverage is compounded by the fact that many, though certainly not all, reporters come to stories with little or no background on religions and the very topics they cover. This was a major reason why after 9/11, I wrote the book, What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam.

Is there more media coverage of religion today than in the past? Yes. Are there reporters and stories that make an important contribution to better understanding? Yes. Are there serious and substantial problems resulting in a dangerous bias in the coverage provided by many media outlets? Most assuredly, Yes.

We still have a long way to go in a world in which in many societies, religion has become a more pronounced presence and factor in personal and public life, in domestic and international politics.

  • Bill C.

    Can anyone find any evidence that Islam is a religion of peace. Are its countries peaceful? Are the people more peaceful? (No they’re more violent) Does the Koran preach pacifism? This is utterly stupid to make excuses for a religion which is violent to its core. Someone find me some evidence that Islam is a religion of peace.. What the laws of Muslim countries? ENOUGH ALREADY. Its roots are violent, its followers are violent, its book is violent, and its laws are violent. If someone can show me why this is a peaceful religion. Please, enlighten me.

  • Tomh

    thanks for the study.There is more here than merely the numbers, however.As Mr. Esposito stated, most people would agree that the media tend to report more sensational events. In general, a suicide bomber killing people is more sensational and morally convicting than accidental collateral damage. So unless we know HOW each of the Palestinians & Israelis died, it is problematic to jusitfy bias in coverage due to conservatve/liberal, pro-Israel, etc.Likewise, we’ve had far more reports of Ameircna casualties in Iraq than Iraqi dead, and waaaay more reports of war deaths than the thousands Saddam killed beforehand. I don’t take this necessarily as anit-war bias; it’s the media / public interest in Americna casualites.What the facts DO support is many studies that admit the vast majority of print media people are self-described liberals. One can argue to what extent that it spills into their reporting, but it is obviously affects it somewhat. Of course talk radio has found a different niche/bias (hello, Mr Limbaugh!).Lastly, the media does seem to be clearly biased in one area, and I tread lightly here because homosexuality is a very emotional subject. The media reports crimes like the murder of Matthew Shepard (sp?) over and over and over… and pretty soon people like Rep John Conyers actually believe there are a rash of hate crimes acorss the country, so much so that more legislation is needed. The facts speak differently, but I don’t see the meida reporting that out of millions of crimes in the last decade, incidents of things like assault against gays (which of course individually are horrible and ought to be punished) are a few hundred per year; not exactly the #1 problem our country faces.

  • victoria

    you are right- if it bleeds it leads could you substantiate your figures?

  • BGone

    Bill C:All religions are “religions of war” and Islam is no exception. Religion was founded on the principle that some dead could be prevented from going on to their next lives. That began as the hacking up of the body and got a substantial face lift with the notion of a place called hell, invented (discovered?) by Pharaoh.Moral people do what their leaders tell them to do including take the lives of other people. That’s always done with gain of some kind in mind. The problem hell solves is the facing of the killed in the next world.The whole story is at

  • BGone

    Religions are businesses like all businesses with exceptions, no product, no service. They collect the money and give the suckers what they ask for. Over a trillion tax free, tax deductible dollars will go from America to the Vatican over the next 20 years at the present rate. With inflation…L Ron Hubbard any different than Bill Graham? Billy operates off tax free, tax deductible “gifts to God” while L Ron’s gang gets taxed like they were WalMart. Freedom of religion does NOT include a lot of religions, only those officially endorsed by the government. That’s endorsed and definitely not established ;)

  • Anonymous

    Professor Esposito,

  • Asim

    Victoria,

  • Asim

    halozcel,

  • Assaf

    Victoria:Printing “studies” by discredited organizations of hate groups like If Aaerica Knew which supports the hateful type of Islam espoused by genocidal terror groups like Hamas causes a disservice to everyone. Until the Palestinians embrace a loving Islam as espoused by Dr. Esposito which recognizes the differences between all of us they will continue to wallow in their despair. We need more Islamic leaders to come to the fore and remind us that the Jews and Christians are also people of the book and share a devotion and love of the Holy Land. We need less distorted studies that attempt to demonize Israel and more exposure of the hatred practiced by Hamas and Hezbollah that demonize Islam. Only until all Muslims speak out against the true crimes against Islam as practiced by these descendants of those who supported HItler during WWII (e.g., the GRand Mufti of Jerusalem) and voice support for the Jewish people to live in peace in their tiny state in a sea of Islamic countries will there be true peace as envisioned by our prophet, may he blessed in peace.

  • halozcel

    Everyone needs to know about islam.Yes,lets learn.Man can take four women.Who knows what islam is?Yemen Republic,islam country(islam also means House of bliss)Sweden,kafir land(kafir,infidel means wrong path)Citibank,market value over 4000 billion dollars.Islamic bank,sukut bank(whatever it means because without golden coin so called islamic bank is an empty word but perhaps respectfull Lady may explain from Kuala Lumpur)Who knows those?Healty relationship can not be based on empty words,hypocricy and desert rules.Everyone needs to come twentyfirst century.This is the solution.

  • tomh

    victoria, I was referring to crime stats from 2003, but unfortunately I don’t have a specific url at my disposal to link to. From memory of one report, there were 1317 reported hate crimes against gays that year. Of these, a few hundered were of the name calling variety, which I hope we can agree, while wrong, are not egregious. A few hundered more were ‘simple assault’, which often is shoving or pushing, but of course can be worse.I do not have stats on general assault stats across the country, or sexual assault, but of course the sad total would be in the tens if not 100s of thousands per year. Every form of violence is terrible. But violence against gays is certainly not the national tragedy some make it out to be. (I only pop up on here 2/week or so – if I don’t answer, I’m not ignoring, merely working) :)

  • Muslim Man

    This is idle talk. Why does your opinion on a religion not your own have any relevance? The only opinion that matters is the one of your own way of life. Disbelieving in something you never believed in is like affirming the bogeyman doesn’t live under your bed. Would it matter that I think Religion XYZ is pure evil? It would if I were a practitioner. Then I’d be entering into disbelief. Humans are violent. Humans are peaceful. Religion is a guidance system for those whose hearts are healthy. I can hand 20 students the same recipe but get a few exceptional dishes and a few terrible ones. This is the same for revelation. It doesn’t make the recipe bad. It means only that some students have an aptitude for cooking while others need more guidance. Tweaking the recipe will hardly change the normal distribution of aptitude.

  • Phaedrus

    Muslim Man:You write:”I can hand 20 students the same recipe but get a few exceptional dishes and a few terrible ones. This is the same for revelation. It doesn’t make the recipe bad.”I appreciate your analogy in part, but would rebut that if some of the ingredients in this particular dish are lethal, it does not matter how any of them might taste.

  • Phaedrus

    victoria:I would have thought that you would have known me a little better than this by now. Of course I do not believe that all, or even most, Muslims are violent and hateful. And I would not, and have not implied that in this, or any of my posts. My point is that the violent and hateful Muslims, however many of them there might be, read the same Koran as the rest, and find ingredients that prove lethal to many others, most of them fellow Muslims. One can say the same for some Christians, who utilize Biblical passages to justify all manner of cruelties, historically and presently. Inerrantism and literalism are the problems. I hope this sets things to right.

  • VICTORIA

    Well theres still an inherent misperception that the verses are there to be found or misunderstood- people have to really stretch and take things wildly specific to try to stretch it to fit anything remotely violent- this is the point- its not thereany of the rationalizations for terrorist mentality come from purely questionable or eve made up altogether hadeeths- this isnt in the quran- its an idea supplanted by an individual- so i still balk at your misrepresentation of the qur’an- while its eas to find violence in the bible the qur’an is distinctly NOT the bible- and is overwhelmingly consistent in it message of peace

  • victoria

    im going to use this blog to post some negative depictins or studies of muslims in the western media because it seems more friendly to such posts- im posting positive ones on the other panelists blogs- these would set up a furor of denial and anger possibly and i dont want to poke the bears.A new report entitled “Western Perceptions About Islam and Muslims”, released last week at the NewsXchange conference in Amsterdam, reveals that Arab Muslims are typically portrayed in a stereotypical and negative fashion by the media in Western Europe and the United States. The report is the result of a study, commissioned by the Kuwaiti government and undertaken by Communique Partners of San Francisco, which involved a survey and a series of interviews with media experts.Stereotypes of Arab Muslims are reportedly most obvious in television coverage, although they also exist in the print media. The report states: “In print stereotypes are not so obvious, except in cartoon caricatures, but they still occur and anti-Muslim bias is more insidious. The terms Islamic or Muslim are linked to extremism, militant, jihads, as if they belonged together inextricably and naturally (Muslim extremist, Islamic terror, Islamic war, Muslim time bomb).” (See previous postings here and here).The Western media has also been criticized for its misuse of the word ‘jihad’. In an article entitled ‘Intent of ‘jihad’ missed in translation as ‘holy war’, Faysal Ruwayha asserts:”Muslim scholars explain that jihad, literally means ‘to struggle’ and that the word pertains first and foremost to mastering one’s passions and leading a virtuous life.” Newspaper coverage has a strong impact, second only to television coverage, on the perceptions of Arab Muslims, with 36% of Western Europeans and Americans admitting their opinions of Arab Muslims are strongly influenced by newspaper reporting.37% of survey respondents said they were exposed to very little news coverage of Arabs and Islam, and nearly 75% stated that they think the media reports accurately on Arab Muslims and Islam 50% of the time, not often, or never.In response to the question “What can be done to improve the perception of Arab Muslims and Islam?”, respondents from the Communique study frequently answered: an increase in positive coverage of Arab Muslims and Islam, increases in education and communication, more media balance, a decrease in the religious zealotry of radical Muslims and a reduction in terrorism.Chris Yalounis, one of the authors of the Kuwaiti sponsored report, told the NewsXchange conference that “The image of Islam has been hijacked by extremists and it is time to take it back.” Also at the NewsXchange conference, a Reuters editor in charge of the agency’s new Middle East service questioned why “if the west was serious about coming to terms with Islam and understanding what the Middle East was all about” have more Western organisations not bought this service, which provides a “very good daily view of life in the Middle East.In addition to the Reuters Middle East service, other initiatives such as Al Jazeera International have appeared, pledging to circulate new perspectives on the Middle East and Islam. Al Jazeera is set to launch its new English language channel this spring, the channel wil have broadcasting centres in Doha, Kuala Lumpur, London and Washington, and will provide a fresh Middle Eastern view on international news and current affairs. Nigel Parsons, head of Al Jazeera International, has stated that finding American cable companies that will transmit the new Al Jazeera in English has proved difficult.Sources: Media Guardian.co.uk (here and here), Followthemedia.com, news-press.com

  • vic

    Tuesday, March 13, 2007Media Tenor, a German company which specializes in global content analysis of television and print news, released a presentation the other day comparing the news content of several Arab TV channels, al-Jazeera, al-Jazeera English and other American and European TV channels. The pdf of the presentation may be found here.Some key points from the presentation regarding news content related to both anti-Americanism and Islamophobia are: * * * * * * *

  • V

    Saturday, March 10, 2007This past week was unusual as several major American media outlets ran feature stories on Muslim Americans and the state of Islam in the United States. The first appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post and was focused on sectarian divisions between Sunni and Shia Muslims in northern Virginia. The story was framed around the question of “could Iraq happen here?” with tensions between local Muslims highlighted as well as efforts by Muslim leaders to bridge sectarian divides.A similar story appeared in the NY Times today and focused on the relationship between African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslims within NYC. The two stories appearing so close together in two major rival papers is most likely not a coincidence, either the NY Times decided to follow the WP with their own feature, or the WP got wind of NY Times feature (which is much longer and more in depth) and decided to run a short feature providing their own local angle on a similar topic.I recommend the NY Times article – its a good read and not only explores the relationship between black Muslims and immigrant Muslims, but also provides an exemplar of post-September 11th intolerance and fear toward Muslim congregations, even “moderate” or “progressive” ones. If what the article describes is true and accurate about Congressman Peter King and his treatment and attitude toward his local Muslim congregation post-September 11th – and his novel – it is simply mind blowing to me that this guy is in office.On an academic note, the type of conflict frames, especially those exploring sectarian divisions, the media use to cover Islam may have an impact on attitudes toward Islam. For example, as my previous post notes, media and public opinion indicators since March 2006 suggest the media’s increased focus on sectarian conflict in Iraq is correlated with an substantial increase in the number of Americans who have a generally unfavorable opinion of Islam (a rise of 10 percentage points).Lastly, Louis Farrahkan, the infamous long-time leader of the Nation of Islam, was also profiled on CNN this week. He is stepping down from his leadership post due to health reasons and is now calling for greater peace and understanding between Muslims and non-Muslims. Some see his passing of the leadership torch and the emerging new leadership among the Nation of Islam as possible signs of the group moving toward more “mainstream” Islam.

  • phaedrus

    “any of the rationalizations for terrorist mentality come from purely questionable or eve made up altogether hadeeths-”The fact that there exists the opportunity for, and the many instances of, disagreements about what certain verses actually mean, makes my point quite nicely. I am not going to get back into this with you, as we have travelled this road before. I wanted to clarify the point that I was making to Muslim Man, and am satisfied that I have done so. I am content to simply disagree with you on the rest, although other Muslims you say you respect, agree with my perspectiveregards, P.

  • victoria

    hadeeths arent verses phaedrus- they are sayings of the prophet(pbuh) transmitted by his companions so the fact remains-

  • phaedrus

    Victoria:I know exactly what the hadeeths are. I have read several of them, as well as the entire Koran, as I have stated to you previously I certainly hope that you are not claiming that there are no differing opinions within the islamic world on the meaning of Koranic verses, because that would serve to undermine your oft-expressed view that Islam is not monolithic in its thought and practice.

  • victoria

    i think that was the point phaedrus- so i stand the same- any poison found exists in the heart of the finder of poison- but its not inherent in the qur’an (wich was your implication)

  • Phaedrus

    I will stand on my prior observation as well, and will resist the urge to post a rebuttal, which we know will be of no use. Au revior.

  • victoria

    muslim man- an excellent analogy- if i may- i will borrow its usage in the future- now jakob is yakuv and is telling us that if we hear voices in our heads we should go get checked out- thanks jakob- thats a comfort phaedrus- but the analagous comparison of the qur’an doesnt lead us to the conclusion that there is ‘poison’ in it- because mostly all the muslims now and in history have gotten it right or close to right- using the basic materials provided- by your reasoning- EVERY SINGLE MUSLIM WHO EVER LIVED WOULD BE VIOLENT AND HATEFUL- such a violent and hateful people would have no compassion and would have subjugated the entire world by now (there have always been enough of them) but most muslims ARE NOT VIOLENT OR HATEFUL- as a matter of fact phaedrus- conduct your own little study and find one hateful muslim on these boards- if you can sift through the very hateful prejudice spewed at them to do so- go on- its a challenge- so thanks for your analysis- it actually PROVES that the ingredients (qur’an) in the recipe (islam) ARE healthy.

  • victoria

    demonization of arabs in american media

  • victoria

    well this didnt print out as the poll taken but as the poll itself – heres the link-

  • Anonymous

    ppppp

  • Murad

    Much can be hidden in statistics, particularly if you survey or if you are subjective.If you make it a point that an American TV program showing yet another Islamic terrorist attack/bombing is biased against Muslims, then you’ll rack up the ‘Americans are sooo mean to Muslims’ points.If you see this as just presenting the facts then you’ll come to a different conclusion. Hey, has anyone considered that the news report of yet another Islamist suicide bombing is true?Compare such journalistic facts with the anti-American, anti-Jew hatred on Arab TV? Is there any comparison? Did anyone scale the ‘bias’? Hands up those who think al-Jazeera is a better news provider than the average American TV network. Yup – just as I thought. All these subjective analysis. Has anyone actually sat down and watched al-Jazeera with its blatantly pro-Palestinian, pro-Ummah, pro-Islam, Muslims-can-do-no-wrong, Muslims are such VICTIMS, programs? No? A case in point was the pathetic pro-Iraqi slant during the second Gulf War. Unbiased al-Jazeera certainly is not. I’d much rather watch Fox News than al-Jazeera anyday, and that’s saying something.How many of you have seen the mainstream Egyptian TV serial portraying the Jews as blood-sucking parasites who make motzas out of Christian boys’ blood? It was still showing a couple of years ago.I can tell you that Muslims in general don’t speak out against Islamic terrorism because they agree with it. It’s in their scriptures – read Surah 9 at-Taubah for god sake. Turn on Arab TV and see the absolute hatred of Jews, America, Christians openly spouted. Much of this is on Memri and youtube – you only have to look.

  • Gary Boxleitner

    I’m sure if the so-called American Muslims had organized a 100,000 strong demonstration against “the subversion of the Religion of Peace by Islamo-crazies” in some place like Washington DC all the news providers would find that event ‘news worthy’.Just a suggestion to bear in mind in the event an Islamo-crazy who’s hijacked the Religion of Peace blows up something big in the USA, after slipping through the FBI net.

  • Kearns

    This article seems to repeat the 2nd paragraph through the end of the article. From the second “The emphasis on “headline events”” to the end seems to be a duplicate, though perhaps slightly different.Oh, and kudos Mr. Esposito, the article’s spot on, I’d say.

  • jhimmi

    The reason Islam’s negative, sensational, and violent aspects are so well publicized is that they present a clear threat to the non-Muslim world.

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