More coverage of US Muslims is needed

It's up to journalists to provide the antidote to fear and ignorance, which is facts

In her column, Minority Reports, Jennifer Vanasco analyzes how the mainstream media covers social minorities.

This week, Americans commemorated September 11, which means there was a flood of stories about American Muslims. Some of these tie specifically into 9/11 while others were more light-hearted looks at the current state of the Muslim-American community, like one in the Washington Post about speed dating.

During the rest of the year, though, American Muslims are rarely covered at all, unless it’s Ramadan, there’s a bomb scare, or there are protests against a new mosque or community center. How under-covered are American Muslims? A Google news search for “American Muslims” and “Muslim Americans” turned up a grand total of zero results in June and July, and barely more for the balance of this year. Ironically, the fake “birther” controversy, in which President Obama was accused of being born Muslim abroad, is covered more than actual Muslim Americans.

In some ways, this sparse coverage makes sense. American Muslims are not only a social minority, but a tiny one: there are about 2.6 million of them, which is less than 1 percent of the US population, compared with 5.2 million Native Americans or 6.1 million Mormons.

Yet it’s too bad that stories covering their lives only come around once a year or so, because many of these stories are both important and well done. A recent guest blog post at the Washington Post traced the rise of anti-Muslim sentiment in the US, including a 50 percent increase in hate crimes. This year, those included a homemade pipe bomb in a mosque. This rise in discrimination and violence has led to deteriorating Muslim American health, according to a guest post at CNN. This may only increase in the wake of this week’s anti-US violence in Libya, Egypt, and other Middle Eastern countries following the Internet distribution of a trailer for a film portraying the prophet Muhammad negatively. The Washington Post notes that US Muslims are now worried there will be “more resentment.”

The rising prejudice against Muslim-Americans since the 9/11 attacks only highlights the good the media can do by writing about ordinary Muslims, their lives and their achievements. During Ramadan and in the lead-up to September 11, there’s no shortage of these stories. For example, several outlets wrote about the new Muslim Green Lantern introduced by DC Comics. Others, like The Los Angeles Times, wrote about Muslim delegates to the DNC. The New York Times reported on how Muslims are thriving at Catholic Colleges and the New York Daily News profiled a Muslim-American fashion designer who creates stylish—but modest—clothing.

These sorts of stories provide some balance, because much US Internet traffic (and gasbagging from rightwing politicians) portrays Muslims worldwide as either terrorists or as Taliban-like imposers of Shariah law. Perhaps that’s why a recent Zogby poll found that 57 percent of Republicans have unfavorable opinions of Muslims. In non-Muslim news sources, there is not just enough acknowledgement that moderate American Muslims exist, and that they lead ordinary lives.

Skewed views of Muslims likely persist here because the population is so small. Many—perhaps most—Americans may not know any Muslims, which means they are instead relying on media and Internet resources to inform their opinions. This means it is even more important for us to write stories that shed light on this community, not just ones that generate heat. We need to cover Muslim-Americans more. And when we do so, we should be even aware that we may need to provide context.

The Tampa Bay Times failed to do that in its recent story of a news conference and counter-protest over the executive director of the local chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, or CAIR, who spoke to Advanced Placement students at a Tampa public school late last year. The protest was organized by Terry Kemple, who is running for Hillsborough County School Board. Kemple is trying to ensure that no Muslims will ever speak in the Hillsborough County schools again.

There are quotes from (non-Muslim) bystanders coming down on one side or the other and then the conflict is summed up this way: “Opponents of CAIR say the organization has terrorist ties. Local CAIR leaders say their mission is to promote tolerance and respect.”

The trouble is, one of those statements—CAIR’s—is an organization’s mission statement. The other is a groundless accusation. Nowhere does the article note that CAIR is the equivalent, say, of the Jewish Anti-Defamation League or the NAACP or that the organization has conducted diversity training for the FBI and the US Armed Forces. The article reports that one woman drove to join the anti-Muslim protest because she “had read about honor killings.” But CAIR is not promoting Shariah law— it’s promoting equal treatment for American Muslims.

In addition, the reporter doesn’t mention that Terry Kemple has compared CAIR to the KKK and to a pedophile organization. How do we know? Because earlier this year, Tampa Bay Times columnist Sue Carlton reported that he had.

This same context should have appeared in the September article on the protest and counter-protest. Otherwise, readers might be mislead into thinking that CAIR might very well be promoting Taliban-like policies.

This is not okay. Because Americans have so little personal context for Muslim Americans, journalists need to provide it. This is important, because American ignorance puts Muslim-Americans in danger—the rising hate crime rate is proof of that. There are too many myths out there, too much fear. It’s up to us to provide the antidote to fear, which is facts.

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Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years.