Sensationalised media coverage of Islam and Muslims is widening community divisions, according to leading journalists and media academics.
Dr Abdi Hersi, the manager of Griffith University’s award-winning Reporting Islam project, said negative stereotyping and incorrect use of language in media reports was contributing to Islamophobia throughout the community.
“Muslims are not terrorists. Islam is not a religion of terrorism. We need to be very responsible in the way in which we cover . . . stories of certain individuals engaging in criminal activities.”
The Reporting Islam project, co-headed by fellow panelist Professor Mark Pearson, aims to combat negative stereotyping of Muslims and Islam in the media by providing evidence-based reporting guidelines.
Professor Pearson said issues surrounding terrorism and protests over planned mosques were clearly newsworthy, but more care was needed in the way those stories were covered.
“Our audiences would demand [they] be reported and they’d be asking very serious questions if [they were] not reported,” Professor Pearson said. “The question is . . . How do we cover something fairly and accurately, and perhaps even offer . . . solutions that might actually help heal wounds in a community rather than exacerbate or inflame community tensions?”
The public’s understanding of Islam and its followers remains poor with research showing 83 per cent of Australians report knowing “little to nothing” about either, despite Islam being the country’s third most popular religion.
Dr Hersi said the “very low baseline knowledge” also applied to journalists, which affected the quality of their stories.
“You cannot report [stories involving] Islam and Muslims very well if you don’t have the basic knowledge of this religion and its people,” Dr Hersi told the audience.
Professor Pearson said the “hallmarks” of poor reporting included a tendency to link terrorism to Islam and focus on negative stories, which he said could contribute to community alienation.
While he was careful not to assign a direct relationship between negative media coverage and radicalisation, Professor Pearson said such alienation was a known risk factor.
He said it would help if there were more positive stories about Muslims and other ethnic minorities reported by mainstream media.
Dr Hersi agreed and said the focus on negative stories was also an issue of journalistic perspective.
“If we’re always picking what is wrong with these communities, but ignoring all the good stuff that is happening within [them], I think there is a lack of balance,” Dr Hersi said.
The panelists, who included Kot Monoah, a former refugee and spokesperson for the South Sudanese community, agreed that the lack of Muslim voices in media stories was a problem. Dr Hersi described this as “negligent reporting”.
“I think we need news organisations to embrace young Muslims in their newsrooms, and hire them, because they might actually bring a perspective of Islam and Muslims,” Dr Hersi said.
Mr Monoah said African Australians faced similar problems in the way they were portrayed by the media.
“If the news is written or aired in a way that is likely to demonise an ethnic community or an ethnic group, it is alienating them rather than helping them integrate in society, and there are many consequences that follow on from that,” he said.
“I think journalists would find it beneficial if [they] were to reach out and have connections with community members . . . in being able to report effectively. It does help in terms of being of mutual benefit for both parties.”
The panel members said journalists covering stories relating to Islam and Muslims needed better education on how to report such stories with sensitivity. Moderator and journalist Denise Ryan-Costello prefaced the discussion by acknowledging that journalists generally were “not trained particularly well” in this area.
The Reporting Islam group has worked with Muslim community leaders and Australian news organisations to develop learning tools, including apps, training packages and guidelines, to train journalists and media students on the subject.
Earlier this year, the group ran workshops in Melbourne, Canberra and Perth on the responsible reporting of terror arrests and mosque proposals, which were supported by Australia’s journalism association, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance.
Professor Pearson cited the group’s guidelines as a reference point for journalists to help discourage negative stereotyping.
The Reporting Islam Reportage Handbook can be downloaded from the group’s website.