New York City – The question of how media can play a role in defusing or inflaming a situation came up again after two separate hate crimes against Muslims in Queens last month. Ali Akmal, a beloved 72-year-old grandfather, was assaulted on 24 November while he was out on his early morning walk. And, in a separate incident on 19 November, Bashir Ahmad, a halal food truck vendor, was beaten and stabbed outside Al-Saaliheen Mosque while attempting to enter the building to observe morning prayers.
A number of news agencies reported on the attacks, demonstrating a range of approaches that can be used to report on hate crimes. One of these ways gave me pause as it seemed to reinforce stereotypes. When seen among some positive examples of media dispelling myths over the last year, it is clear that how mainstream media reports on an event makes a difference.
Rather than focusing on an innocent victim of a hate crime, some articles instead focused on the anger the victim expressed against their perpetrator. Indeed, I suspect any victim of a violent crime would be highly upset. This focus made me uncomfortable and it led me to wonder: would the media have used such headlines when reporting on victims of crimes from any other group in the United States? Could media play a larger role in decoupling the myth that Islam is linked to violence?
In many ways coverage of these incidents in New York City is a microcosm of media coverage implicating Muslims in international conflicts worldwide. Too often these reports boil down a crime against Muslims to a mere sound bite, reinforcing the stereotype that Muslims are violent while concurrently subtracting legitimacy from the pain of being the victim of an attack.
By avoiding stereotyping and making sure headlines and quotes do not misrepresent a situation, editors and journalists can help reduce those same stereotypes, and arguably instances of violence as well.
After all, journalists have already contributed immensely to fostering a more inclusive New York. Earlier in 2012, when an advertisement campaign was launched in the NY subway system that many felt was unfairly critical of Muslims in general, a number of news outlets provided alternative voices from Muslim Americans to show that Muslims could not be defined by a few advertisements.
In another example, it was the news media that publicly challenged counter-terror surveillance efforts that targeted Muslim American communities. The potential for media to be a force for objective coverage that is representative of all parties is clear, as are the gains by such coverage.
Through sensitivity and professional reporting, journalists have an opportunity to dispel stereotypes and participate in bridge building efforts as a public voice in the city, and in the world.
*Robert Amir Berry is a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy where he specialized in Conflict Resolution and Southwest Asia/Islamic Civilization. He is currently involved in various efforts to help bridge the perceived gap between the West and the Muslim World, including as a facilitator with Soliya.
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 18 December 2012, www.commongroundnews.org
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