By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
An estimated 5 million to 7 million Muslims live in the United States, but this sizable religious community was nearly invisible in the media until the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“Certainly, in the wake of 9/11, people discovered Islam in a new way, fairly or unfairly,” said Kim Lawton, managing editor and correspondent for PBS’s “Religion and Ethics Newsweekly.” “It opened up the doors to covering communities that didn’t get much attention.”
Some of the coverage was egregiously simplistic. “There has been some irresponsible coverage,” said Religion Newswriters Association President Yonat Shimron. “In the beginning, right after 9/11, a lot of newspapers didn’t really weigh their words carefully. They’ve learned to, and been reminded about that from the Muslim community, not to call all Muslims terrorists. Islam is a varied faith and is practiced in different ways throughout the world, and I think people are becoming more aware of that.”
That change can’t take place soon enough for leaders of the Muslim community, who chafe at inaccurate or stereotypical depictions. The Los Angeles-based Muslim Public Affairs Council has gone further than mere complaint. Founded in 1998, the policy-based organization focuses on government relations, media relations and interfaith relations with the aim of building a culture of civic engagement among American Muslims.
Along the way, helping the media has become an important service. “We offer consultation services to screenwriters, directors and any industry professional looking for a Muslim voice to ensure that the voice is accurate and humanizing,” said Edina Lekovic, communications director for the council. “We don’t always expect the coverage to be positive, but we aspire to see accurate and humanizing portrayals.”
In its role of helping the news media, the Muslim Public Affairs Council is on call 24/7-and busy. “We work with TV reporters, newspaper and magazine reporters on a daily basis,” said Ms. Lekovic, who regularly participates in journalism forums. “We are far more often responding to requests than making pitches.”
Stuck in a feedback loop related to current events in Iraq, the United Kingdom and closer to home, news coverage of the Muslim community rarely strays beyond stories about terrorism, Ms. Lawton said. “News media doesn’t cover the day-to-day of how Muslim beliefs affect family life or other social issues,” she said. “Many Muslims I talk to are very frustrated about that.”
Ms. Lekovic agreed. “It’s a Catch-22,” she said. “Reporters know they need to get a Muslim response, but it’s still related to a Muslim response. What we have the hardest time doing is getting coverage for the good, proactive work that Muslims are doing in integration, countering extremism and terrorism. I don’t think there is a media bias. There is a lack of information.”
The Muslim Public Affairs Council is nearly finished putting together an “expert guide” that it will mail to reporters, producers and journalists across the country.