Covering Islam

American Journalism Review, January-February 2002 | Go to article overview

Covering Islam


Journalists recently gathered in Washington, D.C., to hear a provocative discussion of the news media's understanding of Islam. The forum, "Covering Islam," was organized by American Journalism Review and funded by the Carnegie Corporation of New York, a foundation created in 1911 by Andrew Carnegie to "promote the advancement and diffusion of knowledge and understanding." Participants not only assessed the media's overall work on topics related to Islam, but also how reporters can right people's misunderstandings of the religion.

The forum took place November 27 at the National Press Club. The following is an edited transcript of the discussion:

JUDY WOODRUFF: Welcome to this discussion of the news media's coverage of the Islamic world and whether this coverage has the kind of insight that all of us crave and need, or whether it has added to the confusion and the misunderstanding and, frankly, the lack of understanding that's been out there.

I'd like for each panelist to take five, six or so minutes to give us general remarks related to the topic, "Covering Islam," and to talk about how they feel the news media has done in this regard, and I want to start with Professor Shibley Telhami.

SHIBLEY TELHAMJ: First, I think after September 11th...the early days after that horror, I think that the U.S. government actually reacted very well on the question of distinguishing between the terrorists and Islam and Arabs more broadly.... At the same time, there is no question that despite the success...the media by and large was drawn to the seemingly mysterious aspects of Islam to explain things that seemed so puzzling, such as how can you have such educated people commit suicide and kilt so many others? It seemed to go against our conception of who conducts terrorism.

Here again we were drawn to theology. And I think that, in fact, we were intellectually lazy in searching for explanations because I think it's very easy to explain these things outside theology.... I think, for example, if you look at the history of violence, you'll find that most political violence has been led by the better educated, whether they're religious or not, throughout political history.

The third point I want to make is about this tendency to focus on the seemingly peculiar aspects of Islam--those aspects that we don't understand and can't relate to--to paint them as if they were representative of Islam in general, to look at those aspects of Islam that are obviously ugly and to think of them as representative of all of Islam. And I found that's actually the mirror image of what happens in the Middle East when they Look at the West and American values in particular and how they paint the picture in their own minds.

They Look at shows like "Dynasty" as representative of American values, and I'm not exaggerating.... And I think that the one thing that we haven't done well enough is to differentiate between those peculiar aspects and the broader Islamic world. And, in particular here, I think we have failed considerably in differentiating between fundamentalism and militancy.

I think we have, in our focus on the fact that these terrorists happen to be Islamic fundamentalists, we have thought of fundamentalism itself as a problem.... Fundamentalism has been there for ages, whether it's in the Middle East or in Israel or in Jewish institutions or Christian institutions. Fundamentalism is not a problem. It's a choice for society. It's a choice for individuals. That doesn't explain militancy.

WOODRUFF: Caryle Murphy?

CARYLE MURPHY: Even before 9/11 the Washington Post for several years has been giving more extensive coverage to religion, and this was because in every focus group that the paper led, people were saying we want to know more about, we want to see more articles about religion and spirituality.... Now, since 9/11 of course, interest in Islam has skyrocketed.

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