I will never forget this conversation.
An award-winning writer, working for a prominent American newspaper, was once traveling with me. I remember she kept asking me why Muslims don’t respond to media coverage. She said that each time she wrote a positive story about Muslims, her paper received hundreds of emails, letters, and calls in protest, while hardly receiving appreciation. Her bosses didn’t like that and it was counted against her.
She was eventually let go from that publication.
Another award-winning journalist, with no relation to the writer mentioned above, working for a different paper, told me exactly the same and was also eventually let go.
Muslims, like all Americans, love to hate media.
Americans' trust in mass media "to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly" has dropped to its lowest level, at 32%, in the Gallup polling history.
But media’s work has real consequences for Muslims. According to the last survey available, the approval rating of Muslims stands at 17%. When the survey asked Americans why they hold such a low opinion of Muslims, they pointed to media.
Media has allowed Islamophobia to go mainstream. And, although, Americans don’t trust television, radio, and newspaper, media is still a major source of news, with 57% people indicating that television is their main source of news.
So if you’re worried about the bullying of Muslim children increasing by 660%, and 20% of bullies being teachers, you need to look no further than media.
Media can play a positive role. After 9/11, the approval rating of Muslims went as high as 59%, as media made a serious effort to portray Islam and Muslims in a more positive light.
This can happen again, but it will require work. It will require us to try and influence media by developing relationships with human beings working in media.
But don’t delegate this to some organization. Organizations will do their work, but media is too massive and too omnipresent to be a task delegated to a couple of staffers or even volunteers.
Each Muslim needs to take personal charge of this work, and each masjid needs to focus on at least one media outlet.
What You can Personally do for Positive Media Relations
- Can you or your family adopt one media outlet? Consider, for example, Channel 7.
- Whenever you’re watching Channel 7 (and try to watch it regularly, so you get a feel for their work), keep an eye on their representations of Muslims, civil rights issues, race issues, climate issues, etc.
- Whether the content is good or bad, make a note of it with date & time, as well as reporter’s or producer’s name.
- Send them appreciative messages about what you like, and send them feedback about what you dislike.
- Twitter is the best way to connect with them, although good old letters to the editor are still very influential.
- Try to understand their personal likes and dislikes through their Facebook newsfeed.
- Personalize your communication to specific individuals instead of addressing the company in general.
- Pitch an idea: Don’t just be reactive, suggest ideas! LinkedIn is very useful since you can search media professionals and develop a feel about the stories they might be working on already. That can help you pitch an idea to them.
- Please keep a detailed record of your communications. It will help be very helpful information.
Help Your Masjid and Organization to Enhance Media Relations
- Get your Masjid or your organization to write formally to media. Organizational feedback is taken seriously by media.
- You can organize a meeting between key members of your Islamic center and the editorial board of that media organization.
- One of the menu item on your website should be "Press" or "Media." It should list your spokesperson or media contact to facilitate media contacting you for your perspective.
- Organize a media workshop at your Masjid.
Remember that the media is made up of humans, and relationships matter a great deal. You can influence them. Reporters appreciate it when you get to know who they are and what they care about.
I am aware of several success stories when individual Muslims have been able to win over the hearts and minds of human beings in media.
However, sabr--or patience--is the key. Change will not happen overnight. Relationships take time.
The consequences of bad media coverage for Muslims are immense. Don’t expect some organization to handle media relations for you. You and I, as responsible citizens, must personally engage in this work as well.