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...because it's not always black & white
Why reporting on Muslims and Islam must change

It’s probably not surprising to hear that there’s a link between media narratives and hate crimes in Britain—or that 47% of religiously-motivated hate crime is directed towards Muslims. Here’s some context. In 2019, the Muslim Council of Britain’s new Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM) analysed over 10,000 articles, and found 59% of all articles about Muslims linked them to negative behaviours, with over a third misrepresenting or generalising them.

The Mail on Sunday and Daily Mail Australia, part of Mail Online, had the joint highest percentage—with 78% of articles mentioning Muslims or Islam, connecting them with negative behaviour—while Sky News had the highest in broadcasting, at 53%. In September 2017, The Spectator claimed, “there are an estimated 32,000 Muslims eager to commit the next terror atrocity.” After Miqdaad Versi, Director for Media Monitoring at the Muslim Council of Britain, complained, The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) ruled that The Spectator’s claim was “significantly inaccurate.” Then, just last month, IPSO published its new—delayed and long-awaited—guidance on reporting of Islam and Muslims, which stated: “There is no ‘one Islam’. Muslims are not a monolithic community…” Huh?

Isn’t this ‘Journalism 101’? Where’s the depth? Or, the emphasis on the importance of finding appropriate people to quote when it comes to reporting on Islam, whether they are representative and what their track record is. When it comes to opinion pieces, the guidance, again, feels like a whitewash. IPSO says: “Newspapers are entitled to publish opinion pieces, including critical pieces, but must take care to comply with the Code, for example, not to publish inaccurate, misleading and distorted information or discriminate against an individual”. There are several sections that seem to say that, as long as it’s differentiated from fact, anything goes.

Since the September 11th attacks, Islamophobia has risen—and with it, conflation of issues such as refugees, immigration and terrorism. After the Paris terrorist attack in November 2015, Die Welt in neighbouring Germany ran a headline: “Terrorism and refugees will be the end of our high standard of living.” A year on, three terrorist attacks in Germany itself lumped refugees into the same pot again. It didn’t matter that the killer convicted of the mass shooting in Munich had grown up in Germany, and had connections to right-wing extremism. And, it didn’t stop the Bild from asking: “After Bloody Week in Germany, how are refugees monitored?”

Compare it to reports in 2015 of Buddhist monks attacking Rohingya communities in Myanmar, in the name of ‘Buddhism’. Often, reports would add, “…but Buddhism is a peaceful religion.” Islamic extremism—or the acts of ISIS—are no more representative of Muslims, than the actions of Buddhist monks burning Rohingya villages to the ground are of Buddhists. But media isn’t so quick to espouse the teachings of the Qu’ran, which are also founded in love, in defence of Muslim criminals. One can only question why we’re so forgiving of rogue Buddhists, yet treat violent Muslims as the universal spokespeople of Islam.

Last week, on LBC radio, presenter Nick Ferrari spoke about the 50 Jamaicans scheduled for deportation on Wednesday 2nd December. 13 people were ultimately deported, but 37 were taken off the plane—leading Ferrari to tell his listeners: “Fairly soon, there could be a Jamaican rapist or paedophile coming to a street near you.” This was the same man who told British author, Afua Hirsch, who spoke about the racism she experienced growing up in Britain, to “go home” on BBC2.

Think it doesn’t matter, that it’s just the inane ramblings of a xenophobic, attention-seeking man? Hark back to Boris Johnson’s Telegraph column in August 2018, in which he compared veiled Muslim women to “letterboxes” and “bank robbers.” Home Office figures show that almost half of religiously-motivated hate attacks in 2017-18 were directed at Muslims, and the week after his comments, hate crime incidents rose by 375%. In 42% of street attacks, people referenced Boris Johnson—the man later elected Prime Minister of the UK—and his words.

It matters what we write. Journalism has the power to question, to correct stereotypes, to call out lies—when it doesn’t, it reinforces the battle lines, fuels distrust of ‘the media’ and fans the flames of ‘Fake News.’ In times of crisis, when words can reassure communities; they certainly shouldn’t incite. Terrorist attacks, in particular, provide fodder on which many—including Katie Hopkins—feed on. They already have a banquet to feast on and don’t need further sustenance.

But, in a world of 24/7 news, the pressure to break a story, write a scintillating op-ed and generate clicks is real—even though, we know it’s better to be accurate than quick. So, think about it like this: when the dust settles, what have your words achieved? Have they enhanced knowledge, furthered understanding or provoked thought? Or were they fast-food journalism—tasty on Twitter, but leaving you hungry a few hours’ later?

Shivani and Meera


P.S. If you missed any of our past eight newsletters, you can read them all here.

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Writing Tip of the Day

'Tis the season to be jolly and all, but the Christmas period can result in some of the highest suicide rates in the UK. And, the CEO of missing persons charity Missing People, Jo Youle, has warned that lockdown, and the financial and social impacts of coronavirus, could lead to “never seen before” rates of missing people and suicide over the festive period. 

That’s why, when reporting on such sensitive topics, it’s crucial to follow media guidelines set out by organisations like the Samaritans. Tips include avoiding speculation, sensitive use of photos and prominence of the news, particularly on social media. It’s a general lesson in how to approach a complex topic, whatever that may be, in order to avoid resorting to stereotypes and worse. Good tidings we bring...

The Sense Check

“How can we be inclusive, in terms of commissioning and hiring, without making it look tokenistic or like a ‘diversity hire’? Doesn’t positive discrimination perpetuate this?”

Meehika Barua

Lebawit Lily Girma 

Travel journalist and photographer

"'Positive discrimination'... I didn't even know this term until now, and I see it's used in the UK as opposed to the US. I find it terribly worded.

Back to the question: it starts with diversifying your personal circles. Difficult to do now given the pandemic, but there are ways to meet new colleagues of different cultural backgrounds and walks of life even if it's digitally for now. The reality is that as long as you don't have a diverse personal life to begin with, you'll always end up hiring and commissioning purely to meet quotas or see talent of color as such.

Another tip—hire that person multiple times, and ask them to recommend other writers/creatives of colour, to expand the circle. Let your hires know that you picked them for their talent; be honest about the fact that you're here to support great talent—not just fill quotas."

Jamie-Lee Abtar

Georgina Bennett-Warner

Communications manager, legal sector

"By making sure that your team or company culture encourages differences, celebrates the benefits of having a diverse staff, and understands why inclusion is so important. You have to really want to make a change. There is simply no point in trying to appear inclusive, if you have no real interest in doing the work and are just 'following the crowd.'

Too often, people badmouth positive discrimination and cite situations where those who have benefited from it have struggled to keep up with their white peers.

However, I strongly believe that positive discrimination is a vital redressing of the balance, and that the onus is on the company to ensure that candidates are given adequate support and encouragement to fulfil their potential. Too often, people are hired in order to hit targets and left to fail, due to a hostile or unprepared environment."

Want to ask a question (anonymously)? Send away! Please email us here and we'll try and tackle it in an upcoming newsletter. We also welcome any feedback or comments.

Did You Know?

You might have heard mumblings of Queen Victoria and the ‘forgotten Black princess’, who spent her life between the Royal household and her homeland in West Africa—particularly recently, when it was announced a Hollywood film was to be made about her life—but did you know who she was?

Born Omoba Aina, an Egbado princess of Yoruba descent, Sarah Forbes Bonetta was captured in 1848, aged five, during the Okeadon War in West Africa. Her family were killed in the war, but as the daughter of royalty, Sarah was kept in captivity as a state prisoner until 1850 when Captain Frederick E. Forbes convinced the new King to ‘gift’ the eight-year-old to Queen Victoria. She was brought to England and given the names ‘Forbes’ and ‘Bonetta’—after the Captain and his ship.

Sarah’s intellect and comportment was admired by the Queen, and she consistently impressed her tutors. But while royal stewardship put Sarah into higher education and British aristocracy, it didn't shield her from public scrutiny, personal suffering or a capricious court that was fundamentally suspicious of an educated Black woman with pedigree.

In 1862, she married a wealthy Yoruba businessman, living in England—whose proposal she was said to be ‘persuaded’ into accepting—and settled in Lagos, where she gave birth to her first child (named Victoria, with the Queen’s permission, who became the child’s godmother and later gave her annuity) and would flit between England and Nigeria. So proud was Queen Victoria of her namesake, that when she passed her music exams, teachers and children were given a day’s holiday.

In 1880, suffering from tuberculosis, Sarah went to recover in Madeira, off the west coast of Africa. She died, at around 40 years old, and was buried in the capital, Funchal.

Spotlight on...

In August 2019, the hashtag #CharitySoWhite came about after it emerged that training materials by Citizens Advice called ‘Barriers to working with BAME communities’ contained a slide featuring racist stereotypes about communities of colour. In it, diverse groups were generalised as having ‘low levels of literacy’ and ‘intrinsically cash-centred cultures.’ The premise behind Charity So White is to tackle racism within the ‘third sector’ and as they themselves say, “We don’t want to burn down the sector, we want to make it better.”

Common Goal is a much-needed initiative where companies can pledge 1% of earnings to selected NGOs working in the field of ‘football for good’. It originates from streetfootballworld who for the last 15 years have created a global network of over 120 community organisations that use football as a way of tackling social issues, from gender equality in India to refugee integration in Germany. They support Common Goal by vetting NGOs who work in this area, and recommending the best recipients for donations.

Reading Room
Ijeoma Oluo NY TIMES: In America, is power in the hands of too many ‘mediocre’ men?

"White manhood is on a suicide mission" and it is our job to pull America back from the precipice, writes Ijeoma Oluo.

Dominic McKenzie/The Observer GUARDIAN: Our attitudes to race are complex. Our response to racism should be complex, too

Encouraging new research suggests effective ways of challenging prejudice. Sonia Sodha breaks it down.

Jacques Feeney/Getty Images IRISH TIMES: Taking the knee is not just an empty gesture–it never was

Booing Millwall fans remind everyone what the knee protests were all about, writes Ken Early.

PA Images THE ARTICLE: Mass deportations by the Home Office are unjust and dictatorial

Agatha Johnson unpacks the language used in response to the crisis.

“Britain has no ‘white history’. British history is the multiracial, interracial story of a nation interdependent on trade, cultural influence and immigration from Africa, India, Central and East Asia, and other regions and continents populated by people who are not white, and before that, invasion by successive waves of European tribes most of whom, had the concept of whiteness existed at the time, would not have fitted into it either.”

― Afua Hirsch, Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging

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