Bay Area press offers enlightened coverage of Muslims

Reporting contrasts with California papers' xenophobic past


By Michael Stoll and Rajeev Poduval
Posted July 7, 2004

In the last three years the Bay Area's Muslim community has emerged from relative obscurity with the help of sensitive treatment by the region's three largest newspapers, Grade the News has found.

The mainstream daily press discovered Islam in the worst of circumstances -- when terrorist attacks brought the religion into the media spotlight on Sept. 11, 2001. But since then, the papers have been filled with sympathetic, explanatory stories about native-born and immigrant Muslims striving to preserve their culture, practice their religion and break down stereotypes.

Coverage of Islam in the Bay Area was responsive to world events. Grade the News counted local stories on Muslims one month out of four since January 2001.

In a departure from racist attacks on Asian and other immigrants that characterized news commentary about minorities in California into the first half of the 20th century, this coverage helped readers understand the differences between the Islam of the 9/11 terrorists and their coreligionists in the Bay Area.

"The Muslim community was an un-covered community in the past," said Helal Omeira, executive director of the Northern California office of the Council on American Islamic Relations. "In stark contrast to the pre-Sept.11 era, we are inundated with media requests for more talk shows and news stories."

A survey of articles printed in the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle and Contra Costa Times shows that Muslims' voices proliferated, at a time when many followers of Islam felt they were put on the defensive politically, having to distinguish their beliefs from those of the hijackers. Local television reporting is harder to measure retrospectively because it is not publicly archived, but Muslim leaders noticed an increase there as well.

Local coverage of Muslims was clearly driven by international events. Grade the News analyzed stories written about the Bay Area Muslim community at three-month intervals from January 2001 to April 2004. Before the 2001 terrorist attacks, the Bay Area's three largest newspapers together published fewer than six articles per month in the sample. That jumped to 70 articles in October, 2001.

Coverage of the local Islamic community dropped back to 22 stories per month in the three newspapers in 2002. As war with Iraq was threatened and then began in early 2003, coverage of local Muslims rose again, but subsided later in the year to average 21 stories per month. By early 2004, coverage had dropped back to eight stories per month.

The Mercury News led the coverage. It alone published half of the local stories about Muslims in October 2001, and since then has averaged more than 10 such stories a month. Even before 9/11 the paper was running a fair number of stories about local Muslims. Not surprisingly, the Mercury News has emphasized hiring an ethnically diverse staff and even made reporting on the diversity of the South Bay -- home to a growing number of Indians and Pakistanis especially -- part of its mission statement.

Well behind in coverage, the Chronicle ran 14 stories on local Muslims in October 2001, and has averaged about five such stories per month since then. The Times on average ran 21 stories on local Muslims in October 2001, dropping to an average of three stories per month since the start of 2002.

California has a history of scapegoating immigrants and minorities. Racist cartoons like this one, blaming Chinese immigrants for taking jobs that would otherwise have gone to whites, were widespread in the Victorian era. The caption: "What shall we do with our boys?" From the Wasp, a San Francisco newspaper, June 1882. (Image: Library of Congress.)

The sensitive treatment stands in stark contrast to the practices of Bay Area newspapers in the past -- a history of unapologetic ethnocentrism and xenophobia that stretches from the founding of the state to past the midpoint of the last century.

German and Italian immigrants were smeared in the press as untrustworthy by their ethnic association with bomb-throwing anarchists in the early 1900s. The turn of the 20th century saw the rise of William Randolph Hearst's fear-mongering in the leading paper of the day, the San Francisco Examiner, which repeatedly warned of a "yellow peril" -- mostly underpaid workers from Asia. The papers' suspicions shifted to suggestions of Japanese-American subversion in World War II.

"The antipathy toward Asians had an impact on American foreign policy," said Thomas C. Leonard, the librarian of the University of California at Berkeley, and a journalism historian. "It was driven by a fear of immigrants and what they would do to the labor market. In the current media culture it's very bad form to have a racial slant to the news, but that doesn't mean it can't return."

Muslims reach out

Some local Muslim leaders say they would not have gotten much positive attention if they had not learned to work the media. Community organizers have actively sought out reporters to cover interfaith prayer sessions, major Muslim holidays and statements by the faithful denouncing both Muslim extremists and Western aggression. That resulted in favorable explanatory television coverage of Eid -- one of celebrations after Ramadan -- as well as prayer vigils every subsequent Sept. 11.

Following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, local and national reporters flocked to "Little Kabul" to record daily life in the Afghan immigrant community in Fremont. The press has also run an impressive number of stories about alleged incidents of hate-motivated attacks against people who were, or were thought to be, Muslim. These stories helped non-Muslims to understand the difference between Shiite and Sunni branches of the religion, and to learn that Sikhs, though they wear turbans, have nothing to do with Islam. Television viewers recently learned that local Muslims were quick to condemn the beheadings of foreigners across the Middle East.

In addition to the local reporting, Bay Area papers have filled the editorial pages with diverse and nuanced perspectives from within the religion. They include pluralist reformers such as Irshad Manji, whom the New York Times dubbed "Osama bin Laden's worst nightmare," and Asma Hassan, who described herself as a "Muslim feminist cowgirl."

Islam vs. 'Islamist'

Despite the care devoted to coverage of local Muslims, some practitioners of the faith say negative images and words constantly are recycled through the press in national stories about terrorism and Islamic extremism. Oftentimes, imprecise use of the English language tars all Muslims with the same broad brush.

The use of the term "Islamic" in the derogative sense has decreased, as the media diction evolves to separate Islam from terrorist acts motivated by the religion.

The coverage doesn't always have to be politics or religion.

-- Maryam Hasna Maznavi, Muslim UC Berkeley sophomore.

"First they combined 'Islam' and 'terrorist' and came up with the term 'Islamist,'" Mr. Omeira said. "New coinages emerged in the wake of the Gulf War such as 'Islamo-fascist.' There has to be a clear line of demarcation between religion and using religion as a justification for terrorism or fascism, or whatever ideology."

When the news media fail to make such semantic distinctions they end up implicating the whole local community in the acts of a few, say Muslim leaders.

"The coverage is becoming increasingly negative as actions of a few are dramatized to be the norm to judge the community as a whole,” said Imani Rashid, chairman of the California caucus of the Islamic Political Party of America.

However, the Grade the News survey did not find that Muslims were identified by their religion in routine crime reports -- a fear cited by Prof. Leonard and some Muslim leaders.

More than politics

The survey found that the Mercury News, Chronicle and Times frequently went out of their way to bring Muslim issues, ideas and customs to the attention of wider audiences.

Last September, for example, the Chronicle ran an article on restaurants offering food that is halal -- lawful for Muslims to eat according to Muslim dietary rules.

To many Muslims it was a relief to be recognized in a context that for once had nothing to do with clashing civilizations. "It was really a nice gesture, because it is through such things that we feel included in the American culture," said Maryam Hasna Maznavi, a sophomore art and mass communications major UC Berkeley who is Muslim. "The coverage doesn't always have to be politics or religion. It could be something as simple as this."

Of the overall coverage, she said she's seen some worrisome stories, but "I think the positive developments outweigh the negative aspects."

Realizing diversity

"The Bay Area is one of the most diverse communities in the country, and I think the Muslim community is not well covered -- or, at best, it is covered probably in ways that are a bit simplistic," said Robert Rosenthal, managing editor of the Chronicle. "In the recent past, the coverage of the community has become more thorough and broader. I think we should pay more attention to them in a more comprehensive way."

Mr. Rosenthal said one of his biggest challenges is to bring more minority reporters to the paper's staff, which is about half as ethnically diverse as that of the Mercury News. (See "Bay Area newspapers nowhere near as diverse as the population," May 17, 2004.) The paper this year followed the Mercury News in establishing a "diversity team" of five reporters to look systematically at race and demographic issues.

Susan Goldberg, the Mercury News' executive editor, said the paper was well positioned after Sept. 11 to cover the local Muslim issues because reporters had already written about them and had sources at the ready.

"This is part of our effort overall to cover the entirety of a diverse community," Ms. Goldberg said. "In the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks we talked a lot about how it would be very helpful to our readers to shed more light than heat on the issue and explain, well, what are the tenets of Islam?"

In meetings with editors, five reporters volunteered to cover the local Muslim community as a beat, said Lisa Fernandez, a reporter in the paper's East Bay bureau.

Ms. Fernandez has attended several sermons at local mosques wearing a rented burqa. That open-ended inquisitiveness led her to write an explanatory story in February 2003 about a Muslim women's study circle called a halaqa -- a story that defies the myth that women don't study Islam or even go outside their homes.

"The Mercury News has its mission statement about commitment to diversity and they mean it -- unlike any other newspaper I've worked at," Ms. Fernandez said. "The reason our newspaper had a head start wiring about the Muslim community after Sept. 11 was that we'd been writing about them long before. It wasn't like scrambling in the phone book for Muslim restaurants.

"The next step is to get more immersed in the community and get more sophisticated in the coverage, so we don't do simplistic outside gawker stories," she added.

This is a critical juncture for the mainstream press. New ethnic media have proliferated in recent years, and South Asians, in particular, are starting to augment a variety of periodicals with targeted television programs. For example, in Fremont, Jaiza, a weekly cable TV program on Comcast Channel 29, brings viewers news from a "Pakistani-American perspective." In San Jose, MeccaOne produces a weekly show on Islam on KSJS, 90.5 FM, the campus station of San Jose State University.

At least some segments of the news media have realized that ignoring the concerns and interests of minority communities such as Muslim-Americans risks losing a growing segment of the audience. But Bay Area journalists have gone a step further and shown they share a curiosity and a professional commitment to demystifying the Muslim community.