Is the Australian media Islamophobic?

It is not uncommon to hear complaints of media bias and prejudice against Islam. Some critics go even further and accuse the media of pursing an anti-Islamic agenda. This is a serious charge, but little evidence is available to support it. A recent study of news items in two widely read Victorian newspapers (the Herald Sun and The Age) discovered an interesting pattern which challenges assumptions of systematic bias.

The project focused on news items. Opinion pieces were deliberately excluded as, by definition, they represent the marked position of the author with no claims to objectivity. News items, on the other hand, are assumed to be grounded in facts and hence impartial in their coverage. Given the surge in Australian Muslim complaints about harassment in the wake of terrorist attacks overseas, this project covered a three-year period after September 11, 2001.

The emerging picture of Islam in the press is less clear-cut than often assumed. Undeniably, certain negative stereotypes continue to be reproduced especially in regard to the status of women in Islam, hygiene among Muslims, social tolerance and civic consciousness. Both papers carried news items that tacitly (and at times overtly) characterised Muslim behaviour as socially and morally unacceptable. The most striking example was the Herald Sun news item (29 May 2002) on a fraudulent insurance claim by a Muslim couple facing charges for deliberately setting their shop on fire. This news item included references to the religious devotion of the wife who followed Quranic injunctions and blindly obeyed her husband who masterminded this fraud.

It may be argued that vestiges of a colonial attitude to 'non-whites' continue to influence Australian opinion makers, as journalists inform and contribute to the body of public knowledge. There are discernible traces of an 'us v. them' mentality which draws a solid line between Muslims and the broader Australian community. Edward Said dubbed this approach to Muslims and Islam 'Orientalism.'

ReportYet for every news item that may be labeled Orientalist, the Victorian press also publishes many more items that bridge the 'us versus them' divide and treats Muslims like any other members of the community. The Age appears to have adopted a conscious decision to break out of the Orientalist mindset. The appearance of feature stories which explore the daily lives of Muslim families and individuals is very significant in this regard. Such stories take the reader into the ordinary experiences of the subjects' day to day routine. The undercurrent message here is the ordinariness of Muslim subjects. Whether stories deal with social and spiritual challenges faced by the subject or more political and controversial issues, The Age reader is made aware of the human aspect of the story. This awareness allows the reader to identify with the subject and transcend religious and ethnic boundaries that would normally act as barriers to understanding. The ability to put oneself in some else's shoes is a human virtue and at the heart of all civilisations.

It is noteworthy that even the Herald Sun, often dismissed by critics as unsympathetic to Muslims, carries such stories that emphasise the ordinariness of Muslim lives in Australia. However, when news items relate to international events, the overall tone in both papers tend to be less concerned with bridging the gap. Inadvertently, international news about Islam and Muslims revolves around war and conflict. Of course Muslims engages in a range of human activity, but they are not necessarily newsworthy. War sells newspapers. As a result, international news tend to feed Orientalist tendencies which views Islam as a religion of war and intolerance and Muslims as bloodthirsty warmongers.

Here lies the problem. Journalists working in Melbourne may be fully aware of the issues that affect our multicultural society and may even be sympathetic to the Muslim community. As noted above, The Age has tried to address the unfair representation of Muslims as 'un-Australian', and the Herald Sun could follow suit. But such efforts take place within the framework of media competition and an unrelenting drive for more readers and a greater market share.

Dr Shahram Akbarzadeh led this study with the generous contribution of the Myer Foundation. Click here to read the report.

 

 

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