How to Reduce Negative Stereotypes of Muslims in the Media

Journalists say building relationships, more diverse newsrooms are key

Mehdi Hasan of Al Jazeera noted differences in media coverage of violent events involving Muslims with those involving non-Muslims. Photo by Megan Mendenhall
Mehdi Hasan of Al Jazeera noted differences in media coverage of violent events involving Muslims with those involving non-Muslims. Photo by Megan Mendenhall

Media portrayals of Muslims in the United States and United Kingdom are often simplistic, inaccurate and focused on violence, journalists said Tuesday during a panel discussion on the media’s portrayal of Islam and Muslims.

This fuels stereotypes and irrational fears, they said, which leads to Islamophobia and even bullying.

“In many ways anti-Muslim hysteria is worse in the United States,” said Mehdi Hasan, a British journalist now living in the U.S. who hosts the Al-Jazeera program, “Up Front.”

He noted that last year about one in four people believed President Obama was a closet Muslim. “(That) shows the power media has to shape opinions and bias and prejudices.”

Along with keynote speaker Hasan, the discussion featured Abigail Hauslohner, a reporter at The Washington Post, Duke alum David Graham, a reporter at The Atlantic, and Nermeen Shaikh, producer and co-host of “Democracy Now!” Omid Safi, director of the Duke Islamic Center, moderated the event, which was sponsored by the center and Carnegie Corp. of New York.

Hasan shared research of how the media contribute to negative stereotypes of Muslims in the United States and United Kingdom. For example, he noted that when a Muslim is involved in a terrorist act, media tend to give it much more coverage than such incidents involving non-Muslims.

With the latter, he said the media often “humanize” the non-Muslim perpetrator by referencing mental illness or interviewing family members.

More relationships between Muslims and non-Muslims could help reduce negative stereotypes, as could more Muslims working in the media and the arts, Hasan said.

“Muslims need to be seen doing normal things because we’re normal people,” he said, noting “there’s no silver bullet, and it’s going to take a while.”

Social media can also influence the public’s view of Muslims, he said. “Thanks to social media you all have platforms.”

Hauslohner, a national reporter for The Post who covers Islam, Arab affairs and America, said she created the beat two years ago after several years of reporting from the Middle East and Africa. When she returned to the U.S., Hauslohner said she saw the need for a beat dedicated to telling the stories of everyday Muslims in America.

“My goal is never to tell positive or negative stories, that’s never my objective,” she said. “… My objective is the truth and nuance.”

Reporting would improve if more newsrooms also added reporters dedicated to covering Islam, and who speak languages common in the Middle East, she said.

Graham, who covers U.S. politics and global news at The Atlantic, shared Hauslohner thoughts on the need for more diverse newsrooms.

“There are way too many people who look like me in newsrooms,” Graham said.

Part of the problem, too, is that audiences respond more to coverage of violence, so those stories tend to dominate coverage, he said. “They crowd out (stories on) everyday lives of Muslims in the U.S. and abroad,” Graham said. “It’s a real blind spot.”