Journalists Debate Media ‘Demonization’ of Muslims

Three of the four panelists at Baruch's discussion of portrayals of Muslims in the media were journalists.(Photo by Jaina Teeluck)

The media’s coverage of Muslim Americans came under attack last night during a panel discussion at Baruch College.

The panel, titled “Muslims in the News Media: Is the Coverage Fair?” and organized by Baruch’s journalism department, sought to explore questions about how Muslims are presented in the press, especially in light of recent headlines on the New York City Police Department surveillance of student Muslim associations. Before an audience of 80 students, faculty members and activists, the panelists debated the reasons for the negative view of Muslims’ that many Americans hold.

While one panelist called the media portrayal of Muslims a “demonization,” others argued that the problem goes both ways — that the Muslim community’s suspicion of the media and “bunker mentality” has led it to a demonize journalists, and to avoid them rather than engage with them.

“It’s not the first time a community has been written about unfairly,” said Ehab Zahriyeh, a multimedia editor at the New York Daily News. “This is just the most recent.”

Zahriyeh, one of the three journalists on the four-person panel moderated by Faiz Shakir of, blamed the sensational nature of news and the contest for readers that force journalists to “chase something when nothing there.”

That puts “the Muslim enemy front and center in our imaginations,” said panelist Deepa Kumar, a professor of media and Middle East studies at Rutgers University. She said the framework of journalism creates “a wholesale demonization of an entire group.”

Shakir emphasized the impact that the media has on Americans’ attitudes to Muslims, pointing to research from the Brookings Institution and the Public Religion Research Institute which found strong correlation between trust in Fox News and the belief that “the values of Islam are at odds with American values” — a result he called the “Fox Effect.”

Kumar cited a Quinnipiac University poll that found that 60 percent of New Yorkers believe police are “appropriately” dealing with Muslims. The NYPD’s surveillance, which started in 2001, was uncovered in August by the Associated Press. Kumar said this should be more than a Muslim issue. “It’s a First Amendment violation,” she said.

Muna Shikaki, a correspondent with the Washington, D.C.-based Al-Arabiya News Channel said she wasn’t surprised that approval of the police tactics is high.

“The impact is low so people don’t care,” she said. “If people had been arrested, there would have been more outrage.”

As a journalist who covers Middle East issues for an international audience, she argued that the media is not to blame. “I don’t think it has this type of bias,” she said.

In addition to the surveillance controversy, the Park51 Islamic Center (billed by opponents as the Ground Zero mosque) and the 2010 Time Square bombing were touch-points for the panelists throughout the discussion.

To balance the negative coverage, some suggested, the media should push for stories that show Muslims in a positive light.

But humanizing Muslims isn’t enough, said the WNYC public radio reporter Arun Venugopal, a panelist.

“You can do 50 human interest stories about Muslims, but they can’t stack up against a fumbled bombing attack,” he said, referring to the 2010 Time Square bombing.

Thursday’s discussion also tackled the question of whether Muslims bear some responsibility for their portrayal in the media.

“There’s a bunker mentality in the Muslim community,” said Shakir, who is the co-author of “Fear, Inc.: The Roots of the Islamophobia Network in America.” “Muslims are afraid of public debate because they are afraid of how they will be represented.”

This makes it difficult for journalists to find sources who can present the Muslim perspective, he said.

Nazia Rahman, a 23-year-old graduate business student at Baruch, said she came to the panel because she has encountered silence from her friends – Muslim and not – on the issue. Students across the region have described a climate of fear since news of the NYPD surveillance came out.

“People are afraid to speak out because of what might end in print or in their files,” said Rahman. “I don’t feel like I have my freedom of speech.”

Improving the relationship between Muslims and the media is a necessary step, said Faiza Ali, a founding member of the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition.

“The media has been demonized in the Muslim community,” Ali said. The panel, she said, was a “reinforcement that media can be a tool.”

But the Daily News’ Zahriyeh said it may be a while before the media will change.

“The media has a lot of growing up to do,” he said.

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