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Andrea Useem, creator and publisher of ReligionWriter.com, is a freelance journalist and editor based in Northern Virginia who specializes in writing about religion. Andrea holds a Masters of Theological Studies from Harvard Divinity School, as well as a Bachelors degree in religion from Dartmouth College. Previously, Andrea worked as a freelance journalist in Eastern Africa for four years; she has also lived in Muscat, Oman. She is married and has three sons.

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The “Crisis” of Covering Islam in America: Q+A with Terry Mattingly

If there’s one religion blog that sets the standard when it comes to high quality coverage of religion-in-the-media, it’s GetReligion.org, a multi-contributor blog founded by veteran religion reporter Terry Mattingly (or, as he’s known online, tmatt.) The blog has a very specific angle: taking a critical look at how religion is, or isn’t, covered in the media. A project of the Oxford Centre for Religion & Public Life, the blog attracts an average of 2, 000 unique visitors per day, “with gusts up to 6,000 on hot issues,” says Mattingly. (For those of you who don’t have blogs — that’s an impressive amount of traffic for an independent blog.)

As I prepared to write an “insider’s guide” to covering Islam for a media guide to be published this year, as well as help with an RNA-sponsored “webinar” on Islam for reporters, I was wondering how to sum up the coverage of Islam in America. A quick chat with American Muslims might give you the impression the press does a terrible job covering Islam, emphasizing only terrorism and other bad news. But as a long-time subscriber to CAIR’s daily digest of stories on Islam, I had come to feel American journalists were somewhat guilty of softball stories on American Islam that involve nothing more probing than interviewing the local mosque’s appointed spokes-families. This gap between religious communities and the press is nothing new or unique to Islam, as Debra Mason, head of the Religion Newswriters Assocation reminded me recently, pointing to the 1993 study on religion reporting, Bridging the Gap.

Wanting a fresh perspective on the question of Islam in the media, I called Mattingly, who kindly agreed to an interview.

ReligionWriter: What’s the big mission of your site? You often talk about seeing religion “ghosts” in stories — what does that mean?

Terry Mattingly: A ghost is a religious issue in a story that the person writing the story has missed. I try not to blame the writers, often this a problem of the [editorial] desk and the assignments. Ghosts are religious subjects the newspaper staff didn’t realize were central to the story; they may be ethical angle or religious terms.

The example that inspired GetReligion, which we wrote about in our Why We’re Here post, comes from a 2003 bombing in Saudi Arabian residential neighborhood. A New York Times article about the bombing said one of the victims, a Lebanese man, had moved to that neighborhood after previous bombings aimed at American targets “because he thought it would be safer to live in a place that was almost entirely Arab and Muslim.” I was struck by those words, “Arab and Muslim.” Later, I found this defining piece of information from another article: Al-Qaeda had presumably targeted that neighborhood because it was home to Lebanese Christians.

In other words, it took the press a while to realize that being Arab is not the same thing as being Muslim and vice versa. Paul Marshall wrote an article for the Weekly Standard about this, showing there was a crucial piece of information missing. So that’s a ghost: a religious difference among different neighborhoods.

One of the classic stories on this is from Peter Jennings, from an interview I did with him years ago when ABC tried to have a religion beat. Peter said the gap between the mainstream press and its audience on religion can be summed up by the moment when you’re in a disaster, and the TV reporter runs up with a microphone, and says, “What got your through this?” And the typical survivor says, “I just hung on, and I prayed and prayed, and I got through it.” Peter says, “And then there’s a huge silence, and the reporter says, ‘Okay, but what really got you through it?’”

There is a role that religion plays in people’s lives that the press just doesn’t get sometimes. You can’t prove in a factual, journalistic way that prayers impact millions of lives a day. What you can prove is that millions of people say they act for the religious reasons, or that their lives would not make sense without them. At some point you just have to take people’s word for it.

RW: But isn’t there a problem with taking religious statements too much at face value? I think of the PBS documentary, The Muslim Americans, where Judy Woodruff interviews two Muslim teenage girls in headscarves, who are piously telling her they are never going to date before marriage. She doesn’t challenge them, and the audience is just supposed to be wowed by their commitment. But that seems so shallow. I want to know how their commitment works in real life: Do they have crushes? Are they just saying that for the camera? As a journalist, do you just report it at face-value when someone says, “I love Jesus, he saved my life”?

Mattingly: No, it’s only half the story. My point is not that religion is the sole factor, but that it has to be taken seriously. It’s a piece of the human equation.

RW: So what should the reporter’s next question be after someone says, “I did such-and-such for God”?

Mattingly: You can ask a quick question about that person’s religious life. Take the Michael Vick story. When he says he has found Jesus and is going to change his life, you can ask, “Can I call your pastor? If you’re claiming to have a religious identity, which is to some extent defined by a religious community, can I know more about that community?” If someone says no, they just practice all by themselves, you can at least report that.

In the Sean Taylor case, it did surface that this young man did belong to a religious community, and that he was trying to change his life. So I would urge reporters to report the facts on something like that. That means calling up the religious community, asking questions like, “How often did Sean Taylor attend church? Was he a part of a men’s group or another small group?” You have to be willing to say the scope of someone’s religious involvement might reflect the way they live their lives.

When I was teaching mass media and popular culture at Denver Theological Seminary, I tried to get ministers in my class to ask three questions about the lives of their church members: How do their congregation members spend their time and their money, and how do they make decisions? The point was to show my students you can’t ignore media and pop culture in a church ministry.

Years later, I realized those are also three wonderful questions for reporters and editors. If someone describes themselves as a devout Catholic, what does that mean? A daily-mass Catholic is very different than someone who goes once a month. So the reporter’s goal is to tip-toe back into factual material.

RW: When you look at how well Islam is covered in the US media, would you say reporters are doing a better or worse job than with covering other religions?

Mattingly: I’ll mention a few specific issues. If you’ve read GetReligion, you know how frustrated I am with the term “moderate Islam.” What does it really mean besides Muslims-we-like versus Muslims-we-don’t-like? Is a “moderate Muslim” someone who is not in favor of living their life under sharia law? Is it someone who teaches at Georgetown? Is a moderate Muslim someone who drinks? I don’t think the press has any idea what that term means — I don’t think there’s any consistent usage.

Then, in the coverage of Iraq, we kept having the word “sectarian” used, and then a “war” between Sunni and Shiite. Yet stories told us very little about what life was like in those communities, and what caused the hatred, and was there any doctrinal role there at all? Finally there was that amazing piece openly asking, “Does anybody making American policy know the difference between Sunni and Shia?” Some policy-makers didn’t even know if al-Qaeda was Sunni or Shia. Or Saudi Arabia, or Wahhabism. Yet these are major factors in some of the biggest stories in American politics right now. You’ve got government leaders that don’t know the difference, then you’ve got jouranlists covering them who don’t know the difference either.

I spoke in the newsroom of a major national publication recently, talking to 70 staff members, mostly editors, about coverage of religion. I asked, “Can anyone here tell me why one side of this conflict [in Iraq] carries banners that are green, and the other side carries banners that are black?” Out of the entire room, nobody could. Nobody knew why the Shia carry images and other Muslims don’t.

Now, I would never hold myself up as an expert on Islam. That’s why I’m so frustrated: I want the press to tell me more. Look at the redefinition of Islam in Indonesia, with outside influences coming from the Arab world. These are gigantic stories, and I would like the press to help me understand them.

RW: What about the coverage of Islam in America? How does that compare, in your mind, to coverage of Catholics or evangelicals or other mainstream groups?

Mattingly: There’s a failure to understand religion in general. Religion coverage has improved, especially on a hot topic like abortion. I think the bias studies of a couple of decades ago really did shake people. I frequently provide links back to that groundbreaking series by David Shaw at the Los Angeles Times, about the struggle to cover abortion in mainstream news rooms.

When it comes to Islam, I think the American press, to some extent, is bending over backward to do a good job on Islam. Yet they are wrestling with a template. They don’t know who the bad guys are or who the good guys are. They don’t know what role religion plays in [terrorism,] and they are anxious not to assign religious motivations. I agree that’s an area where they have to be tremendously cautious. At the same time, [terrorists] themselves talk about religious motivation.

When the nightclubs were blown up in Bali, that was frustrating, because there were statements released by al-Qaeda, in which they talked about crusaders and Jews, etc. But in some of the coverage about the bombings, the religious language was actually removed [by the press.] When they reprint the motives for the bombers, their religious language vanishes.

The religious language of the 9/11 hijackers [was downplayed,] because that’s a very touchy issue. If you reprint it, it sounds like you’re blaming Islam. If you don’t want to blame Islam, then you have to explain there are different beliefs within Islam or that there are debates within Islam: Not everybody agrees when violence is appropriate; no one agrees on whether civilians can be killed. So then you’re covering this very complicated debate within Islam that makes people uncomfortable.

RW: In Jimmy Allen’s 2007 update to Bridging the Gap, Allen lamented that most editors did not see 9/11 as a religious story. But in a way I agree with the editors: Is calling 9/11 an Islam story like saying the Virginia Tech massacre is an Asian-American culture story?

Mattingly: To leave out the religious content of the lives of the bombers would be strange. Let’s look at an example in Christianity. Remember the man who lived out in the woods in North Carolina after blowing up abortion clinics? He had been thrown out of several different very conservative religious groups, and was living as a kind of Christian loner. Yet the press continued to identify him as a Presbyterian. First of all, there’s like 15 different Presbyterian churches: which the heck denomination do you mean? He doesn’t strike me as a PCUSA kind of guy; the world is not full of PCUSA bombers. But for that matter, the world isn’t full of PCA conservative bombers either. In fact, PCA had thrown Rudolph out — the orthodox Presbyterians had thrown him out. If you want to accurately describe Rudolph’s life, you end up saying, “Here is a man who said he acted on strong religious motivations, yet the religious groups he was involved with threw him out, and here is why they said they did.”

The comparison right now would be Fred Phelps and his wild band. You could talk about why they say what they do, but at some point, you have to quote other conservatives, people who believe some of what Phelps believes, but disagree with him totally on his tactics, on his motives, on his Scripture.

There, once again, is a debate that has to be covered. You can’t say Eric Rudolph blew up abortion clinics because he was a conservative Christian. You can’t say the guys flew the planes into the towers because they were conservative Muslims. There are too many other conservative Muslims who disagree with them. But the question for journalists is: What are they disagreeing about? And where are the conservative Muslims who will stand up and critique Osama’s interpretation? Take Sayyid Qutub, whose writing so influenced [Osama bin Laden.] That’s a name that doesn’t get mentioned, yet it seems to me his writings about sharia and its application are absolutely critical to understanding this.

RW: In a recent Republic debate, though, you had Huckabee and Romney showing off their knowledge of Sayyid Qutub. That was pretty amazing.

But when it comes to covering stories like 9/11 or Eric Rudolph, then, the reporters job is to put the main actors in context — is that what you’re saying?

Mattingly: Yes. We came out of 9/11 with this constant statement, “Islam is a religion of peace.” Anybody that said anything other was a bigot. What’s fascinating is not whether that statement is right or wrong, but that it undercut another statement we also heard at that time, which was, “There is no one Islam; there is no central authority, no one can speak for all Muslims.”

So in one case you were supposed to believe that all of Islam was the same — peaceful — when the press was sending an equally strong message that it was not the same. Both of those messages were too simplistic.

RW: But to go back to the idea of religion “ghosts” being important in all stories, doesn’t that pose a problem? If an editor in Omaha says, “Yes, 9/11 is a story about religion,” and then dispatches a reporter to a local mosque to write a story on Islam and terrorism, then the reporter walks in with a template, looking for a way to connect a local Muslim community with international terrorism.

Mattingly: Of course a lot of Muslims feel attacked; they feel like reporters are constantly asking, “Explain to us why they did this.” At the same time, they feel just as attacked when you ask a factual question, like why were there some Muslims celebrating on 9/11? That’s a “When did you stop beating your wife?” question. But it’s a question that has to be asked.

There is a crisis in American journalism of being able to quote Muslims of different levels of Muslim belief who will critique each other: Reporters just don’t feel they can do it. What’s the journalistic solution? “Let’s call some Muslim experts.” So now a faculty member at Georgetown is explaining what is or isn’t Islam, which to me is almost like a form of cultural imperialism-

RW: But what choice does the journalist have? If a journalist goes into a mosque, and an American Muslim says, “Anybody who commits an act of terrorism is not a Muslim,” the journalist can’t just report that, right? Because the truth is, that American Muslim has no right to “fire” someone from being Muslim, at least no more right than al-Qaeda has to say that American Muslim isn’t Muslim. So the journalists themselves have to make sense of the Muslim world, and the Muslims they are interviewing often can’t do it for them.

Mattingly: You have to report that there is radical disagreement, and there is no central authority. The thing is, Osama believes there is a central authority.

RW: You mean he sees himself as the central authority?

Mattingly: Himself, and a certain body of teaching. If you want to watch the heads of reporters spin, try explaining the differences between Osama and the Saudis. You look at it on the page, and it looks like they are cut from one piece of Wahhabi cloth.

RW: And yet they are bitter enemies, trying to kill each other.

Mattingly: Exactly. So you ask, “Is this Arab tribalism here?” At some point journalists are just going to check out. They want to say, “Someone tell us who the good guys and bad guys are, and let us get on with our jobs.” But there are some religious issues where you simply can’t do that.

This is where I’m frustrated by what shows up in polls of Muslims: the 9/11 conspiracy thing, “we’re not willing to condemn all acts of violence, because some are justified,” and then you ask: “Which ones?” We’re covering an argument in which the participants themselves are almost afraid to take part. Journalists are great at covering arguments, but how do you cover one that is, A. so complex, B. we don’t understand it, and C., the very people taking part in the debate itself as scared to talk?

The American religious market, including me — especially me — is struggling to get up to speed on the factual material of Islam. For us, these are new stories.

There Are 5 Responses So Far. »

  1. “Mattingly: There’s a failure to understand religion in general. Religion coverage has improved, especially on a hot topic like abortion. I think the bias studies of a couple of decades ago really did shake people. I frequently provide links back to that groundbreaking series by David Shaw at the Los Angeles Times, about the struggle to cover abortion in mainstream news rooms.

    When it comes to Islam, I think the American press, to some extent, is bending over backward to do a good job on Islam. Yet they are wrestling with a template. They don’t know who the bad guys are or who the good guys are. They don’t know what role religion plays in [terrorism,] and they are anxious not to assign religious motivations. I agree that’s an area where they have to be tremendously cautious. At the same time, [terrorists] themselves talk about religious motivation.”

    I have quoted the above and respond thusly:

    The news media is only able to ‘cover’ stories that involve ‘controversy’. As such, without “two sides to every issue” the mainstream media, can’t and (more often) won’t cover a subject.

    I cannot too highly recommend that readers of these words read: Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business by Neil Postman. In his book he postulates: “in which he argues that media of communication inherently influence the conversations carried out over them. Postman posits that television is the primary means of communication for our culture and it has the property of converting conversations into entertainment so much so that public discourse on important issues has disappeared. Since the treatment of serious issues as entertainment inherently prevents them from being treated as serious issues and indeed since serious issues have been treated as entertainment for so many decades now, the public is no longer aware of these issues in their original sense, but only as entertainment. (”Conversations” in the sense here of a culture communicating with itself).”

    A truly “serious” look at religion is beyond the scope of the mainstream media’s ability to “inform the democracy”.

  2. HELLO HELLO!! WE, THE PEOPLE WHO ARE ISLAMOPHOBES KNOW ISLAM VERY WELL! Why isn’t anyone listening to us? Perhaps there is a REASON you call us Islamophobes?

  3. “This is where I’m frustrated by what shows up in polls of Muslims: the 9/11 conspiracy thing, “we’re not willing to condemn all acts of violence, because some are justified,” and then you ask: “Which ones?””

    Part of the problem is that, in talking about terrorism, mainstream Christians and Jews are often unwilling to confront the fact that they too consider some acts of violence justified. I recall an interview by William Buckley with some African nationalist (might have been Mandela or one of his supporters) many years ago, in which Buckley kept implying that if the ANC was not willing to totally renounce violence and declare itself pacifist, they were ipso facto terrorists. I recall thinking that was a bloody lot of nerve on Buckley’s part. Buckley himself, of course, is anything but a pacifist. Likewise the founding fathers of the United States. We have no business holding other cultures to standards we ourselves do not maintain.

    We should, of course, be as clear as possible about what we believe justifies violence. But we American Christians and Jews are not, as a culture, pacifistic or even generally nonviolent. Let’s stop fooling ourselves.

  4. Millions of Americans obviously have the capacity to follow the intricacies of a season of ‘Survivior’. If they put half the effort into thinking about how they are being influenced by modern media, they might actually start thinking critically and independently about more complex issues. There is a wealth of information available to anyone who is seriously interested in studying the history and current practice of Islam across the globe. But the TV and politically motivated well-funded Islamophobic zealots create legions of so-called experts who are anything but. According to them, Muhammad Ali and Cat Stevens are the same person.

  5. […] blogging and online religion content with Gary Stern, Jeffrey Weiss, Sally Quinn, Amar Bakshi, Terry Mattingly and Shahed […]

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