Best Practices for Reporting on Islam
Michigan State University School of Journalism
This best practices document serves as a baseline in building competency of journalists in regard to Islamic beliefs, customs and culture. Adhering to these practices will help reporters covering stories that relate to Islam, while achieving the journalistic standards of truth, fairness and accuracy. Moreover, embracing these guidelines provides a window into the cultural and religious practices of one out of four people in the world, as reported in the fall of 2009 by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.
While there are some specific terms and concepts discussed in this document, it in no way attempts to argue for special treatment of Muslims or Islam in news coverage. The principles enumerated here, at their core, are the principles of good journalism. They include a strong commitment to ethics, fairness, accuracy, balance and respect. The authors of this document do not believe that journalists need to change their best practices to accommodate Islam. Rather, they believe journalists need to adhere to the best practices already established in regard to all subject matter.
This document was developed by students enrolled in the course “Reporting on Islam” at Michigan State University, which was held in the fall of 2009. It was compiled by drawing from personal experiences, course assignments and guest lectures. Contributions to the document were edited and divided into four categories: Reporter Ethics, Reporter Knowledge, Reporter Objectivity and Reporter Source Use. Each section contains a set of tools for journalists to use when covering Muslims and Islam.
Inform yourself of the stereotypes you may have acquired through the media or any other sources. Any misinformation you may have acquired should not influence your ability to report without bias. First and foremost, educate yourself, as it is your job to educate others.
Do not let your personal opinions of Islam or Muslims appear in a story or contribute to story selection when considering newsworthiness.
Be sure not to incorporate regional or national viewpoints into articles about more conservative cultures. Refrain from any embedded judgment within stories so as not to taint readers’ opinions about other individuals. Allow readers to make their own decisions about the story’s content.
We believe the truth is obtained in the generation and presentation of a representative picture of society to the best of a reporter’s ability. In Public Opinion, Walter Lippmann noted the importance of distinguishing between the news and truth. He wrote, “The function of news is to signalize an event, the function of truth is to bring to light the hidden facts, to set them into relation with each other, and make a picture of reality on which men can act. Only at those points, where social conditions take recognizable and measurable shape, do the body of truth and the body of news coincide” (358). When truthfulness and news coincide, good journalism is achieved.
Telling the truth means being accurate. Fighting Words: How Arab and American Journalists Can Break Through to Better Coverage, a book produced by the International Center for Journalists, states, “This standard demands that we make the effort to verify information, not just accept it from a single source… The bottom line for accuracy is whether our audience is informed with correct information” (107). Fighting Words serves as a good point of reference for journalists, especially in regard to fair, balanced and ethical reporting.
Be flexible in your thinking. Much reporting on Islam is grounded in oft-repeated stereotypes and storylines. Do not so get caught up in your preconceived notions that you miss the real story. Approach each story with an open mind, and you may uncover an aspect to the story you may have missed otherwise.
Take responsibility for the material you publish. You must be aware that your work has the ability to influence the public. If you make a mistake, be willing to correct it, as the public has a right to know the truth. As the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states, reporters must “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.”
Dress appropriately, particularly if you are visiting a mosque or other religious facility.
In a place of worship, ask before you take pictures. While staged photographs are not desirable, asking permission to take candid pictures exhibits the necessary level of respect when working within a religious facility.
Be careful of using the flash when shooting pictures in a mosque or other religious facility. It can be obnoxious, distracting and disrespectful.
Refer to Codes of Ethics:
Do your research. Conducting research beforehand will create less confusion during an interview and will show sources you care about the interview and took time to learn about the subject matter. It will also help you avoid inaccurate over-generalizations.
Use, Spell and Pronounce Terms Properly:
Whenever possible, learn to pronounce names and important foreign terms as close to properly as possible. Some sounds in foreign languages can be difficult to replicate but making the effort shows respect and makes the journalist sound more informed. This issue has been the source of some debate in the field, including this story in American Journalism Review, and was even poked fun at by Christiane Amanpour.
Learn Connotations of Terms:
Do not make assumptions based on the connotation of words. As a reporter, you should research, investigate and understand the true meaning of words not used frequently in your native language to make sure the words are being used properly.
Avoid using terms that the audience has no knowledge of or with which a misplaced knowledge has developed. In the event that they can’t be avoided, clarify. For example, the word “jihad” is commonly mistranslated as “holy war” and believed to be something that is inherently wrong, dangerous, sinister, etc. While some militant groups use the term in that way, the concept has a much different meaning for mainstream Muslims.
Likewise, the Arabic phrase “Allahu Akbar,” which means “God is the Greatest,” is both extremely important to and commonly used by Muslims. It is a repeated feature of Islamic prayer and also is used in place of applause and as a general cheer. However, the media often present the phrase as a battle cry. This has the potential of casting all uses of the phrase as suspicious or to be feared, which would then serve to demonize entire Muslim populations.
Learn to Differentiate (Religion, Ethnicity, Geography, Languages and Cultures):
Do not confuse religion and ethnicity. Islam is expressed differently in different cultures; it is not a monolith.
Do not confuse the terms “Muslim” and “Arab.” The two are frequently conflated, especially in reports on the Middle East, where the majority of the population is Muslim (but there are significant Christian minorities). The confusion is understandable as Islam has its roots in the Arab world, and the Arabic language remains an important part of religious practice for all Muslims. But it is important to note that the worldwide Muslim community is ethnically and culturally diverse.
There are, however, significant Muslim populations in many non-Arab states. According to a report by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life, the four countries with the largest Muslim populations in the world — Indonesia, India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — are not Arab countries.
Other non-Arab countries with majority Muslim populations include Iran, Turkey, Kazakhstan and other Central Asian states. Countries with sizable Muslim minorities include Ethiopia, China, Russia and Tanzania. These groups of Muslims have their own cultures and societies.
Although the Quran is written and read in Arabic for all Muslims, most Muslims of the world have their own languages. Common languages in countries with large Muslim populations include Farsi, Urdu, Turkish, Bengali and Uzbek. When reporting on non-Arab Muslims, it is important to be sensitive to their own cultural nuances and the applicable terminology.
Do Not Make Assumptions:
As with any use of racial or ethnic descriptions of a source, there is no reason to describe someone as a Muslim in a story unless it has direct relevance. The first article in the New York Times about Fort Hood on Nov. 5, 2009, mentioned that the shooter was Muslim even though the relevance of Abdul Malik Hasan’s religion was completely unknown at the time.
Remember that Islam is not monolithic, and stories should avoid implying the existence of a single “Muslim viewpoint.” Fighting Words put it this way: “Truth is more complex than just two sides. Many elements come to play in an issue; social groups are not monoliths. No one person can speak for ‘the Arab world’ or for ‘the Muslim community,’ or for ‘Americans’ or ‘the Jewish community’” (107-108).
Muslims don’t share collective responsibility for terrorism. The media as well as the general public tends to want individual Muslims to apologize for or openly reject 9/11 or other acts with which they have no personal connection.
Reporters should be careful when they refer to centuries-old historical events as being the underlying cause of current day conflicts.
The global community of Muslims is very diverse, as was shown in a Gallup report released in 2008.
Move Beyond References to 9/11:
Not every discussion of Islam needs to begin with, end with or even include the mention of 9/11.
Report Diverse Stories:
Do not interview Muslims only about their religion. Use their voices and perspectives in other articles, too.
Use Multiple and Diverse Sources:
The SPJ Code of Ethics instructs journalists to “tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.” Yet stories of the diversity and magnitude of the lived experiences of Muslims are frequently absent.
Do not avoid interviewing individuals of different races, religions, cultures, etc. simply because of unfamiliarity. Learn about other traditions through research and firsthand experience. Better education will produce better reporting.
When covering a story, have information from more than one source. If a story is about a Muslim or an Islamic topic, interview a Muslim so the perspective of the story is more accurate.
Interview a Muslim:
Make sure you are talking to actual — preferably qualified — Muslims whenever possible in stories related to Islam.
Interview or Network with an Imam:
Unlike some other faiths (such as Catholicism), Islam does not have a central hierarchy you can follow to get the “official” response. This makes it inherently difficult to locate people who are qualified to speak on Islamic matters. Avoid the temptation to speak to those who are uneducated/unqualified simply because they provide a good sound byte or quote. Instead, go to a mosque, speak with the Imam and ask him to refer you to someone who is qualified.
However, keep in mind that some geographical or sectarian subsets of Islam do have hierarchical authority figures that may be appropriate to consult.
Know Your Experts:
Particularly in the post-9/11 world, a cottage industry of Islam “experts” exists that is willing to talk, but many of them have political agendas that are not always disclosed. John Esposito noted that “we consistently have people talking about them rather than going directly to them.” A Muslim comedian made a short film about this phenomenon.
Be clear when a Muslim is interpreting the Quran that it is not necessarily precise wording. Even better, fact check it. A Nov. 8, 2009, New York Times story about the Fort Hood shooting offered a lesson. The Times’ source, Duane Reasoner Jr., is “an 18-year-old who attended the mosque and ate frequently with Major Hasan at the Golden Corral restaurant.” Reasoner said, “In the Koran, it says you are not supposed to have alliances with Jews or Christians, and if you are killed in the military fighting against Muslims, you will go to hell.” The reporters should have checked the Quran for the accuracy of the source’s references to it.
Furthermore, in the example above, it is irresponsible to let an 18-year-old mosque attendee speak authoritatively about what Islam is or is not, just as it would be irresponsible to let a teenage adherent to any religion speak with authority.
Balance Source Coverage:
Never be satisfied with getting one side of a story. Be sure to interview sources with opposing viewpoints to make sure the story does not give readers a distorted version of an event.
Do not stay on the fringes. Balance in reporting is not achieved simply by going to the extreme left and the extreme right.
Edited by Michigan State University students Jeremy Blaney, Brian J. Bowe, Jennifer Hoewe, Thomas Morrissey and Andrew Norman, under the guidance of Assistant Professor Geri Alumit Zeldes.