The American Media and Islam: A Journalists Opinion *
by Ron Smith
When I became a Muslim eight years ago, I toyed with the idea of writing a first-hand account of my observations and experiences. But you know how it goes. A shortage of time and maybe shaky initiative put the project on indefinite hold. So, when Sr. Sheila recently asked me to write something about Islam and the media, I said I would try. After all, I’ve had eight years to think about it. Here goes!
If for no other reason, the current crisis involving Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait has resulted in media worldwide taking a closer look at Islam and Muslims, not only in the Middle East but around the world. Here in my small town of Richmond, Kentucky, population 26,000, the local newspaper has, on its own initiative published a series of articles covering several facets of Islam. The stories featured an overview of what Muslims believe, interviews with Muslims who have embraced Islam, and a story detailing women’s role and rights accorded to her through her religion. This was not an isolated incident. During a one-week period in October,1990, extensive articles on Islam appeared in the Wall Street Journal, U.S. News and World Report, Insight, and the Chicago Tribune. And those were just the stories I personally read. There is no telling how many other newspapers and magazines have carried similar stories since the crisis began, not to mention the exposure on radio and tv.
The articles I saw, with one exception, were in my judgment, fair and objective. As any Muslim who has lived any time in America knows, fairness and objectivity toward Islam have tended to be the exception rather than the rule. We’re all too familiar with the buzzwords that seem always to accompany references to Islam and Muslims; extremists, terrorists, fundamentalists. The linkage of these terms to Islam is not likely to be broken anytime soon. But eight years of observations as a Muslim broadcast journalist have given me the impression that changes, positive changes I believe, are taking place. And the articles from the past month or so bolster that belief.
But if my perceptions are accurate, I also have to wonder how long we can count on the “good” stories about Islam to continue. If many of these stories are being written and broadcast as a direct result of America ‘s commitment to circumstances in the Gulf, don’t we also have to ask what happens after the crisis is over? With that uncertain future, it would seem to me that this time in history is crucial. The media, by opening its eye to Islam, are allowing Muslims to not only offer their vision of the world, but to have the opportunity to open that eye wider, for a clearer view. The longer that eye is open, the more information Muslims can pass on to an American public that generally speaking knows little of the Islamic faith.
This is the time to take advantage of that opportunity. As you have probably noticed, a news story has a relatively short life span. Therefore it is very important for Muslims to react to what they hear and see through the media. If you feel a story accurately depicts Islam or Muslim behavior, publicly praise the reporter, newspaper, magazine, radio, or tv station through letters to the editor or news director for showing the courage and foresignt to do the story. As they say, a little praise goes a long way. Respond equally to stories that you perceive to be biased or inaccurate, but with the sweet, reasonable argument Islam demands. Let your local media know that yours if not a solitary voice but one of many who feel the same way you do. Back that up with a list of names or at least the name of your local Muslim community center or mosque. Numbers talk in America. Politicians and media find them hard to ignore. Establish contact with newspapers, radio, and tv stations in your town or area. A story can’t be written reflecting your ideas and concerns if local media don’t know you exist.
You might argue that America didn’t need a Persian Gulf crisis as an excuse for writing about Islam, and you’re probably right. But as I feel it, this is an ideal opportunity that should not be allowed to pass by. After all, it’s been eight years, and the first page of my book is yet to be written.
**Ron Smith is a reporter/producer for the Media Division of Services at Kentucky Univ. since 1976
Originally published in the Jan-Feb 1991 print edition of The American Muslim