Islam and the Media

Muslim communities in Australia and the impact of media coverage

The reporting of Islam is often “bipolar and propaganda driven”, what Lynch and McGoldrick term as War Journalism.

The media create a simple picture of “Us versus Them”, setting up two entities and usually presenting a shallow analysis of the conflict. However, would the effect change if journalists employed a more egalitarian and objective approach to reporting violent conflicts, an approach called Peace Journalism?

This would be a revolution in journalism and while it is evident in some of the works of journalists today such as Robert Fisk, Uri Avenery or John Pilger, peace journalists stand as a minority on the fringe often ridiculed by their contemporaries as rebellious and radical.

Yet, if we were to look at the Islamic world’s conflicts through the eyes of the media, we would get the impression that Islam is a violent and aggressive religion. The reporting of Islam has generally focused on the violence and the death toll, glossing over the causes or the nature of the conflict and rarely ventured into offering any solutions or deeper analysis of the conflict.

It is violence that makes the news not only for our sour taste for the exciting, but because of the inveterate habit of considering it to be a hurtful and deprecable, abnormal event.

This prevailing attitude by media practitioners is the root cause of the negative media coverage of both world events and local news. When reporting Islam the media lack any objectivity but this is not exclusive to just Islam but a pervasive attitude in the media as a whole.

Islamic countries are judged based on the extent of their acceptance of Western norms euphemistically called “global”.

While we living in the West only really receive Western media, the implicit message is that Islam threatens our way of life. The irony, Nasr says:

there is no common measure between the threats that the West poses for the whole existence of Islam and its civilization and the threats, in reality and not as propaganda carried out by some of the media, that Islam poses for the West.

He goes on to add:

In debates about the threat of the Islamic world rarely do the Western media present the real issues of basic importance in Muslim eyes, such as the loss of Muslim lands, especially in Palestine, on the basis of exclusive historic claims that deny the claims of the other side.

(i) Australian Media Survey

Islam has been portrayed in the media as a religion of violence and most of our knowledge about Islam comes directly from the news and current affairs programs that the average person will view, read or listen to. Reporting of violent conflicts involving Islamic societies reinforce connotations with Islam and violent and aggressive behaviour.

A recent study conducted by Adjunct Professor Peter Manning at UTS has shown some striking results:
58% of international news articles which had the words “violent”, “death”, “attack”, “kill”, “bomb”, “gun”, “terror”, “suicide” or “gunmen” whenever the words Arab, Palestinian or Muslim or Islam was used. This was from a total of 1443 searched.

In comparison articles that used the words tourism, literature, music, carpets, tiles, tombs, monuments, museums, Sphinx, mosques, archaeology, churches, casbahs with the word Arab and only 22% were found.

The reporting of Islam in general receives a disproportionately high amount of negative coverage when compared to other news. More specifically, the stories, overwhelmingly were about incidence of violence or related to conflicts or acts of terrorism. Manning also found that 72% of articles covering the Israel-Palestine conflict had the words “Palestinian” associated with the word “violence” (in close proximity, 439 out of 639 articles).

Also Osama Bin Laden is generally accepted to be a terrorist and frequently associated with Islam and Arabs (77% of articles). The findings of Manning’s research support the claim that the media constructs much of the information we receive about Islam in such a way that it becomes synonymous with terrorism and violence. The problem is really in the volume, which has the effect of reinforcing stereotypes and misconceptions and bombarding the public with distorted images and concepts of Muslims and Islam:

The qualitative data survey suggests strongly that most of our portraits of Arabic and Muslim people come from foreign news reporting. …Then it suggests that our imagery of the “Arab” and the “Muslims” mimics that of continental Europe and following the establishment of Israel in 1948, of the Americans. It suggests that in respect of this issue at least, we have developed – either independently or through cultural transmission- the “Orientalist” notions outlined by Edward Said.

(ii) The Language of Terror

The choice of terms has often been the issue of contention when reporting Islam. In particular, Manning focuses on the Israel-Palestine conflict and looks at reports by ABC foreign correspondent, Ross Dunn. The words we choose and he way we place them in an article constructs certain points of view or paints one side as the instigator of violence and the other the victim. Thus:

“The Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears to be headed for an upsurge in attacks after the murder of two Jewish civilians. Mr Sharon also criticized Mr Arafat for failing to stop the murder of the two Israeli civilians.” (Ross Dunn 17/1/02)

No Palestinian viewpoint is presented, which is commonly the case in Dunn’s reports. “Seeking the views of Israeli spokespeople, particularly from the Defence Ministry, is clearly his top priority.”

Journalists like Dunn fail to attempt to give a balanced review of the situations in the conflict, offering no solutions or a way out. There is rarely any contextual material that identifies historical and social conditions that frame the violence. The reference to the occupied territories of the West Bank and Gaza as just “territories” diminishes the aggressive role of the Israeli government, the calling of one side as “terrorists” and the other as “incursions” or “operations” also depicts a lop-sided view.

Manning states:

In liberal terms, therefore, the democratic use to make of free expression is to animate, and bring about a collision of, alternative views and propositions, as to how progress can be made. This is vital when people in powerful positions put forward policies – like war – which they propose to implement ‘in our names’. Then, the journalist’s mission, in a liberal democracy, is to speak truth to power, thereby equipping readers and audiences to assess those policies – and, in so doing, to discern truth from error – for themselves.

The language of war journalism is also of interest, not only is the proximity of the terms Islam and violence alarming, one that is not as apparent is the grammatical structure of language and reporting war. Linguist, Dr Annabelle Lukin, at Macquarie University has carried out a study on the language of the US war against Iraq. To illustrate a simple point:

Imagine a child having lunch. Her mother looks over to see milk spreading out all over the table. She says ‘what happened?’ At least a couple of possible replies include ‘The milk spilt’ and ‘I spilt the milk’.

In journalistic terms, either of these accounts would constitute a simple reporting of the ‘facts’, without opinion or analysis. Yet they differ in a fundamental respect:

In ‘The milk spilt’ the child selects a particular grammatical option which means there is no mention of an external agent who caused the event to happen. In grammatical terms, this is called ‘middle voice’. The milk is both the actor and the goal. In ‘I spilt the milk’, the child makes herself grammatically responsible – she is the grammatical agent which caused the event to take place. This option is known as ‘active voice’. The child is the actor and the milk is the goal.

The way politicians and the media use language is crucial to the way the public perceives the story. In a way there is little to discern truth from fiction. Many of the stories we hear and see each day on the news could be presented in numerous ways and the language could be expressed in just as many different ways.

In the reporting of war Lukin asks us to consider the following extract from CNN:

A 12-year-old Iraqi boy, who lost both of his arms, his parents, brother and seven other family members in a coalition bombing raid near Baghdad, arrived early Wednesday at a hospital in Kuwait City. CNN April 16, 2003

This 12-year-old Iraqi boy was Ali Ismail Abbas, whose tragic circumstances were the subject of enormous media interest for a period of the Iraqi war. He was hailed as the ‘human interest’ story of the war, a ‘living example of collateral damage’. At first glance it would appear that there is nothing remarkable about the report. If we stand back from it and consider what other ways there are of representing this event.

Robert Fisk, reporting about the same incident puts it another way:

Abbas was fast asleep when war shattered his life. A US missile obliterated his home and most of his family, leaving him orphaned, badly burned and blowing off both his arms.
Report Fisk, Dissident voice, April 8th, 2003. (First published in The Independent)

Key difference, as Dr Lukin points out, is that Ali is both actor and goal in the first report. It implies that Ali did it to himself. In Fisk’s article, Ali is goal only. In fact, the actors are the bombs of the US troops.

What we find here and in the majority of other cases the reporting of violence is subjective when US or coalition missiles kill Muslims. The victims are referred to as collateral damage. When Westerners are killed we often see the human loss of war and the affects it has on their families back home.

Likewise, reporting of issues related to Islam in Australia, especially by talkback radio, is equally disturbing. In Australia radio talkback audiences range 150,000 and 250,000 depending on the news issues of the day. The majority of 2GB callers are ‘working class’ backgrounds; especially drivers, house wives, service industry workers, retirees and private business owners; mainstream Australia. Talkback is one of the most powerful mediums in Australia. It has the ability to reflect what the average Aussie bloke thinks and politicians use it to sell themselves regularly. The most powerful talkback hosts in Australia are Alan Jones and John Laws, both experienced and respected media personalities.

John Laws on 2UE, responding to a call from One nation leader David Oldfield to ban all Muslim migration to Australia says “not all Muslims are terrorists but most terrorists are Muslim. Yep I’d agree with that.” (John Laws: 2UE Morning Program:2002)

The 2002 rape gangs in which a group of teenagers mostly of Lebanese descent were involved in a series of sexual assaults in Sydney, was the most reported issue on tabloid press, television and radio talkback over a period of six months. The way it was covered became an issue of ethnicity and religion.

“The ethnic dimension changed these brutal attacks into something with much wider and more dire consequences, producing a spiral of hysteria and hyperbole in which the number of assaults rapidly escalated.
(The Sun-Herald reported : “70 girls attacked by rape gangs”) (29/7/01)

The rapes were reported as racially motivated targeting white females in the South-west Sydney region.

Jones says: (July: 2002)

The Australian community has been attacked and we should strike back.
A suggestion that taxpayers fund in excess of one billion dollars on ethnic media, much of the content is anti-Australian. I’ll have a look into that. Many were fed up with the latest excuses for the behaviour. Many said the Muslim faith breeds superiority and that these people shouldn’t have been allowed here in the first place.

This was clearly a deliberate ploy to sensationalize the rape trials and to cause strong emotive reactions from the public. The debate was broadened to involve police and politicians. Talkback radio lines were full of vitriolic attacks aimed at the Lebanese and Muslim communities.

Studies have shown that Muslims have been portrayed unfairly and without substance:

Ethnic and religious (Muslim) stereotyping has marred media treatment of Lebanese-Australian youth in Sydney, which links these elements inextricably to criminal and socially deviant behaviour. Worse, Sydney’s Lebanese Muslim community has been held collectively responsible by the media, acting often in conjunction with the State Government and the police, and ordered to ‘resolve’ these problems.

This has dire consequences for many Australian Muslims when it comes to reporting issues that relate to them. Often alienating Muslims, particularly, Arab-Australians:

We have seen the emergence of a new folk devil in contemporary Australia. The links that are made between these events, the perpetrators’ involved and their perceived communities, however problematic, rest on the identification of what we might call the ‘Arab Other’.

What was problematic in the media coverage and the political utterances that ensued was the assumption that Sydney was experiencing an epidemic of race rape and that these incidents were endemic to Lebanese or Arab or Muslim culture.

The ensuing hysteria over Islam reached the point of utter ridicule. The following is an extract from 2GB radio announcer Alan Jones, 6.17 am 22/08/02:

Lawrence: Alan, I have a particular interest in this fiasco at the Auburn swimming pool as I was born and raised in Auburn and I’ve been back several times- that’s quite a few years ago- and I’ve seen the dramatic changes that has taken place.”
However, I rang Auburn council when I first heard about this Muslim women only session.
Alan Jones: What, you have Muslim women only in the pool?
Lawrence: Yes. In their robes.
Jones: What the pool’s closed down for everyone else?
Lawrence: Yes, for a certain period each week.
Jones: “What the pool is closed, it’s a public pool, its closed everybody else except Muslim women? And they go in there and dive in, in all their clobber?”
I wouldn’t like to be the next person in the pool after they’d been in there swimming in all their clobber.

Vitriolic attacks such as these are a regular occurrence being allowed to go to air in the name of free speech. The question arises about the role of media outlets like talkback radio and their responsibilities when community reactions on a particular issue turn into a debate about racism and bigotry. Talkback is merely ‘reality radio’, with all the dramas and conflicts of real life that make good entertainment.

However, there are limits as to how far one can vilify a community and when truth is compromised and racism and hatred are being incited then such calls on talkback need to be censored. Ironically, many calls are selectively filtered to keep the subject controversial and heated. ABC radio host in Melbourne John Faine argues:

“Do we see the occasional abuse of power through talkback? Undoubtedly. It seems to attract thugs and loudmouths, smart-arses and bullies. That’s the presenters – the callers are another thing. It is the skill of the producers that are frantically answering telephones, filtering calls, monitoring the broadcast, massaging the presenter’s ego and sweet-talking guests that makes it all come together.”

The media constructs the world for us through fictional and non-fictional messages, in other words through news and documentaries as well as so-called entertainment. Take such words as ‘fundamentalists’, ‘extremists’, ‘terrorists’, ‘murderers’ and ‘Islamists’, creates a negative image of Muslims. Australian media is no different and the effect on the image of Muslims is seriously tainted. Public perception of Muslims is one of anti-Western, sympathetic to terrorism, violent and oppressive of women. One of the biggest factors that influence the coverage of Islam in the media in recent times is the transformation of news and other media products into commercial products for profit-making.