Based on several conversations I have had with family and friends after the Chapel Hill shooting, many have expressed frustration about the way media handled the coverage. We are simply left wondering how news organizations would have reacted if the perpetrator had been a Muslim. Some in the Muslim community have concluded that there is a double standard in the news industry in how it portrays crimes committed by Muslims versus crimes committed by other groups.
Last week, I was invited by the BBC World to talk about the Chapel Hill shooting. Based on my conversation with the other guests, I have learned a few things:
1. Muslims are frustrated
Muslims are living under the threat of Islamophobia in the United States, which seems to be increasing with every new act of terror in the name of Islam. Muslims who believe in peace and equality are facing a double-edged sword. We are not only witnessing the hijacking of our faith by extremists on regular basis, we are also bracing ourselves for cases of active discrimination. Extraneous speculations in the media combined with the actions of the extremists are traumatizing for those of us trying to dispel misinformation about Islam every day. With every new act of terror, we are being told by media pundits to speak out against atrocities in order to prove that we are not sympathetic to extremist ideology. State rep. like Molly White, R-Belton, has asked Muslims to pledge allegiance to the United States to prove their loyalty to their nation. All in all, being a Muslim these days is like having a scarlet letter etched on your bosom. We are slowly becoming the “other” in the society.
2. Media has a bias problem
Because of recent events of extremism linking themselves to Islam, the media has become a world of suspicion and doubt for the Islamic faith. If a Muslim is involved in an act of violence, the headlines start screaming the word “terrorism,” right away. In fact, during the Oklahoma beheading incident, many in the media and the political arena were quick to use the term to describe the actions of the perpetrator. These people are ignoring the fact that terrorism is such a broad term that even the United Nations has struggled to come up with a universally accepted definition. Regardless of that, the media and the politicians often use this word callously to describe incidents that don’t necessarily fall under the category of terrorism.
Muslims are well aware that a double standard exists. The media and politicians who are so quick to use the word to describe the actions of criminals who are Muslim, are reluctant to use the same term to describe Hicks’ actions in Chapel Hill.
3. Need for acknowledgment and caution
As reasonable human beings, we should never expect the media to abandon caution in reporting, even if it means that there is a double standard. For the sake of fairness, we should expect that the media use caution in throwing words like terrorism around for any group of people – not just Muslims. The police in Chapel Hill have promised to investigate and give us facts to determine whether Hicks’ actions are considered a hate-crime. Until then, caution in reporting is vital.
But the media should acknowledge that there is a bias in the way it reports on Muslim communities. Acknowledging the bias will provide some solace to the Muslims already traumatized by the actions of extremists who took innocent lives at Charlie Hebdo and the Sydney siege in name of Islam. It will provide some comfort to those of us rejecting the actions of ISIS, the Taliban and the Boko Haram. We stand in solidarity with the United States in its fight against terrorism and we want the media to recognize that.
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During the BBC program, I sensed the frustration of Saleem Ahmad— another guest invited on the show from Las Vegas. Ahmad said the media should label Hicks’ actions as terrorism, because there should not be a double standard. Ahmad is echoing the sentiments of all those grieving the loss of innocent lives at Chapel Hill. But as a Muslim, I think it is my duty to think and act with fairness even at the time of great tragedy.
I graduated with a degree in journalism and I think it is absolutely unethical of news organizations to show bias toward any group or issue. But bias is unavoidable in a world where news organizations have to make a profit by often selling sensationalism. Is it fair? No, but since the media can’t do their job, people with reason and logic must try to choose fairness over hype. Ultimately, the media will be forced to cater to an audience which possesses a greater sense of justice and equality.