By Denise Clay
Before there were “Big Fat Gypsy Weddiings” and other showcases of ethnic lives never before seen in this country, the cable network TLC had a show called “All American Muslim”.
This show, which focused on the lives of five families living in Dearborn, Mich., home to America’s largest mosque and population of Muslims, gave Americans who may not have ever known a Muslim personally the chance to look into the lives of those who practice Islam.
But the show was taken off the air due to protests. The problem: The show made those who practice Islam appear “too normal” on television. How could the people who practice a “religion of hate” have normal jobs, kids who play football, and do other typically “American” things?
The answer to that question is simple, says Imam Shadeed Muhammad Philadelphia’s United Muslim Masjid. It’s because those typically “American” things are among the things that Muslims do.
“When you see Islam in the media, you don’t see the community’s face,
Imam Muhammad said. “You’re not seeing the people who live Islam on a day-to-day basis. You don’t see the people who going to the Masjid at 4:30 a.m. to pray. You don’t see the positive images of Islam.”
As a means of trying to change that in Philadelphia at least, members of the media and of Philadelphia’s Islamic community came together recently for a panel discussion on Islam and the Media.
The panel, which was held at the Philadephia Masjid/Sister Clara Muhammad School in West Philadelphia, featured Imam Muhammad, Idris Abdul-Zahir, creator of the “Ask a Muslim” documentary series, Lorraine Ballard-Morrill, director of news and public affairs for Clear Channel Philadelphia, Annette John-Hall, columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Darisha Miller, director of Media Relations for Ross Associates and president of the Philadelphia Black Public Relations Society, and Nicole Newman, President and CEO of Newman Networks.
Former Philadelphia Tribune reporter Naeemah Khabir and media strategist Aliya Khabir moderated the discussion, which looked at everything from ways for the community to connect with the media to what constitutes an “expert” on Islam.
There were some things that were universal about the discussion. For example, getting coverage of events in a climate where there are fewer reporters and a smaller news hole, is a problem for everyone. Because of this, it’s important to make sure you know how to connect, what things reporters usually cover, and how to connect with them.
“Each outlet has its own rules so you have to understand and know them,” Ballard-Morrill said. “You have to know what the deadlines are and you have to have a clear sense of what the story is. You also have to be persistent.”
It also helps if your pitch is tailored to the outlet you’re making it to, Miller said.
“You have to make yourself an expert on the topic of the day,” she said. “If your pitch doesn’t fall into a particular category, you won’t get in. You have about 60 seconds to sell someone on your story. Keep it simple.”
It also helps if you have one or two reporters in particular that you know will at least hears your pitch and takes your story idea to their editor, John-Hall said.
It helps if that reporter is someone who can identify with you culturally at least somewhat.
“There are fewer people [African Americans] in the newsroom,” John-Hall said. “If you want to get your story told, get to know me. I write about things that I have questions about. If I wonder about it, I know that someone else is, too.”
But there were other things that were unique to this discussion as well. While most groups that are considered outside the mainstream have an inherent mistrust of the media, the vilification of Muslims after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has made this community even more suspect of the media.
Thus, one of the questions that was asked was how could honesty and credibility be restored to the media in the current age of technology?
While she acknowledged that the 24-hour news cycle and the “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality of the news industry at present doesn’t help in terms of making Muslims less distrustful of what they hear and see regarding their community, John-Hall said that the best way to help journalism tell accurate stories is by making sure that the information comes from the community itself.
“Journalists are always looking for story ideas,” she said. “Use this to your advantage. Media people will come to you. Don’t be afraid to proclaim your stories. We always want to aim high, but our credibility depends on our sources.”
The Unified EID Committee sponsored the discussion.