Muslims in the media:
Towards more tolerance and diversity
Journalism in Crisis: Ailing Media and Political Threats
News media in every country of Europe, weakened by changing market structures and the onset of digital communications, struggle to cover complex issues that are difficult to explain in daily news stories, such as migration, or the origins of terrorism, or the impact of globalisation.
Journalists are increasingly desk bound; they don’t have the time or resources to research complex stories; their jobs are poorly paid, insecure and precarious. The burden is increasingly falling upon badly-paid freelancers, who the media tend to rely upon more and more, including reporting from conflict zones and crisis-affected areas.
One worrying sign of the decline is that media in some countries – across the Western Balkans, for instance – are no longer regarded as of any business interest to investors or entrepreneurs. Instead, ownership of media outlets has become increasingly the preserve of industrialists looking to promote their wider business interests or they are the trophy possessions of rich individuals with political ambitions.
Often there is little regard for the notions of news journalism as a public good which raises a question for policymakers about how to promote pluralism and inclusiveness in the public information sphere. Increasingly it seems likely that a mixed stream of funding will be necessary, some from the market and advertising, some from public donations and some from public subscription or state subsidy, but how that will be organised without interfering with editorial independence remains the troubling question for most journalists.
At the same time, the growing influence of unregulated and often very unethical online competitors to traditional news sources creates a highly-charged information ecosystem where there is a rush to publish and a tendency towards sensational and unreliable reporting. Many news portals online set high standards – Klix.ba in Bosnia Herzegovina, for example, and Kosovo 2.0 — but the problem of unregulated online media is a growing one that has created a broad movement, involving governments, technology companies and civil society to try to encourage higher standards across the communications landscape.
At the same time, in many countries, media simply do not have the resources to pay for the inclusive and comprehensive reporting of the communities they represent. Reporting on minority communities suffers particularly from a lack of media attention. The impact on migration coverage featured in reports from most countries.
In Sweden, the number of journalists in daily newspapers has been reduced by a quarter in the period 2004-2015. Out of 290 local communes, 32 have no journalistic coverage at all, according to a report from the Institute for Media Studies. The Institute notes that access to information and journalism is lowest among young, poor, and uneducated groups and these three categories are common among migrants and Muslim communities.
In Greece, the economic crisis which overwhelmed traditional media outlets during 2015 saw dramatic reductions (up to 50%) in salaries, with months of arrears in the payment of wages – from 3 to 5 months – and cutbacks across the board in terms of editorial work. The traditional media is hard-pressed, and the online and information websites are no better. They pay very low wages to young and inexperienced news editors.
In Spain there’s particular concern over the lack of time allowed for research and work on in-depth stories and the lack of interest that some editors show in this kind of journalism. Some journalists say they’ve been pressured to rush some stories, and several of those interviewed for this report requested they remain anonymous because of fear of retribution, a worrying sign and connected to increasing job insecurity.
As well as internal pressures from difficult economic conditions other demons haunt the modern newsroom. The undue influence of politics in the way media report on Muslims can be generated either by an embedded bias in the way news is selected or it can come from direct hands-on interference by political leaders.
News media, weakened by falling capacity and often a lack of expertise or informed journalists, can easily succumb to well-established myths about followers of Islam – that Muslims are unpatriotic, that Islam oppresses women and forces them into servitude, or that Islam is by its nature a faith that generates violence.
Although these myths find public space for expression on the Internet, within social networks and are the stuff of propaganda for right-wing politics, they have no place in journalism.
Journalism is not just another competing voice in the public information space where all sorts of ideas, opinions and stories (including bias against religious groups) jostle for prominence. In this environment, there is bias, prejudice and sometimes abusive expression in abundance.
Unfortunately, many politicians are reluctant to accept that journalism is not a place for the drumbeat of propaganda, political spin, and public relations. It is a specific stream of public information constrained by a framework of values. Journalists cannot say whatever they want.
The core values of journalism as set out in the introduction to this report are universally acknowledged as the bedrock of good journalism. They provide the benchmarks for the professionalism that helps to maintain the importance of journalism as a public good and as an important part of the democratic process.
The threat of anti-Muslim bias or unethical reporting arises when newsrooms stray from these ethical norms. Media rarely admit to being deliberately biased, but when they do, it can be remarkably refreshing.
In April 2018, for instance, the normally solid defensive wall of the British right-leaning tabloid press was breached by the candid admission of a new editor that his newspaper had been guilty of Islamophobia.
Gary Jones, the recently appointed editor of the Daily Express, told a Parliamentary inquiry into media bias against Muslims on April 24th about Islamophobia in his own newspaper and effectively blew the whistle on a well-established truth that some parts of the British national press have been consistently guilty of spreading hatred and disinformation about migrant and Muslim communities.
Jones, whose newspaper has recently been bought up by the Left-leaning Daily Mirror group told lawmakers that his newspaper had been creating an “Islamophobic sentiment” based on inaccurate and misguided reporting, with some stories that are “downright offensive”.
This was an important development and his honesty, in the context of a public hearing on the role of the press, has led to calls for a sea change in the way the British press covers controversial issues such as migration and it highlights how editors have a direct and specific responsibility to provide an honest and ethical management of their news organisations.
The reality of Islamophobic reporting in the news media, in particular, is often a function of owners, editors, and senior executives who often apply a mix of their own political, cultural and ideological leanings, and their ambitions for higher circulation in their shaping of stories and editorial content.
This was one of the conclusions in the lacerating criticism of the British tabloid media in the official Leveson Inquiry into the Ethics of the Press in 2012.
Not surprisingly, there have been calls for other editors to come clean and admit their own failures in the light of the evidence given by Jones.
Even if journalists are reluctant to admit their own failings and political links it is abundantly clear is that the current media environment and political pressures on journalism cannot deliver the conditions or fair reporting.
In Bulgaria, for instance, media operate in a small and heavily-concentrated advertising market with non-transparent media ownership, and undue influence from political and economic interests on editorial policies.
The systems for self-regulation of media content and performance are dysfunctional. All of this has directly affected the quality of coverage.
A series of headlines in mainstream Bulgarian media during the refugee crisis reflected bias and heavy political influence:
- “The Prime Minister: 2 million refugees are waiting on the Bulgarian-Turkish border”
- “Expert: The newly arrived refugees are future ISIS fighters”
- “Islamic State floods Europe with refugees”
These headlines and the fact-based claims they make were all proven to be wrong or unverified. They did not come from unruly tabloids, but from leading Bulgarian media: Focus News Agency and the two biggest private TV channels: Nova TV and BTV. The source for the last headline, quoted in the main news section of BTV, a market and opinion leader, is the British tabloid The Daily Mail.
In addition, although Bulgaria has criminalised hate speech, lack of effective use of the legislation creates a feeling of impunity among politicians and public figures who express extremist views in order to win greater popularity. It means that journalists and editors face a heavier burden in determining for themselves what is hateful and potentially illegal.
Another prime example of political interference designed to foment hatred and generate media bias was revealed in early 2018 with the candid admission from inside Hungarian journalism how the Government of Viktor Orban used state television channels to broadcast propaganda in the run-up to national elections.
Biased journalism, including false stories, was planted in the newsroom of the state-funded MTVA Network to reinforce Orban’s election campaign which was fought on a robust anti-migrant, xenophobic, anti-Muslim platform.
On April 13th The Guardian reported evidence from several employees of the public broadcaster on the way its channels pumped out government messaging with the goal of winning support for the prime minister’s anti-immigration message. In the event, the government secured a further term in office. 
The journalists recalled how the network would focus on negative stories about refugees and migrants, linking them to crime and terrorism. Even on the eve of polling, there was no let-up, as the M1 channel incorrectly reported a van driving into a crowd of people in Münster, Germany, as a terrorist attack by a violent Muslim extremist.
“I’d never experienced anything like that, even at MTVA: it was a clear lie,” said one of the journalists, who spoke on condition of anonymity. Documents sent in error to junior MTVA staff and seen by The Guardian appear to confirm direct governmental involvement. Editorial directives produced by staff at the prime minister’s office are cut and pasted to give journalists talking points with which to carry out character assassinations of Hungarian citizens who are openly critical of the government.
 The full text of evidence given to this UK Parliament by experts, public figures and media executives can be found here: http://data.parliament.uk/writtenevidence/committeeevidence.svc/evidencedocument/home-affairs-committee/hate-crime-and-its-violent-consequences/oral/81930.html
Muslims in the Media: Towards More Tolerance and Diversity
© 2019 Ethical Journalism Network
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No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without the written permission of the publisher. The contents of this book are covered by authors’ rights and further use of the contributions will be granted after consultation with the Editor under the conditions of Creative Commons.
Previous EJN publications include:
- Censorship in the park: Turkish media trapped by politics and corruption (2013)
- Innocent mistakes: A controversial film finds journalism caught between image and reality (2013)
- Hate speech: A five-point test for journalists (2014)
- Untold stories: How corruption and conflicts of interest stalk the newsroom (2015)
- The trust factor: An EJN review of journalism and self-regulation (2015)
- Moving stories: International review of how media cover migration (2015)
- Ethics in the News: EJN report on challenges for journalism in the “post-truth” era (2017)
- Trust in ethical journalism: The key to media futures (2018)
- ‘Saving the News: Ethics and the Fight for the Future of Journalism’ (2019)
For all of our previous reports see: https://ethicaljournalismnetwork.org/resources/publications