CAMP 2016: Being a Muslim reporter in the age of Islamaphobia

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Waliya Lari, Seema Yasmin, Dilshad Ali and Asra Nomani present panel discussion Sunday morning “Muslim American journalists in the age of ISIS and Islamophobia.”

Story by Mary Pember, 2016 JAWS Fellow | Photo by Erica Yoon, CAMP photographer

Although the faces and names are new, a panel at JAWS CAMP about Islamaphobia reaffirmed a shamefully persistent problem in today’s newsrooms: Too few people of color and diverse religious backgrounds are at the table when journalists decide how to cover communities that fall outside of the knowledge and comfort zones of mainstream white America.

Islam is the collective symbol of the fearful “other” in America today, often viewed only through the lens of fundamentalist extremism in this new age of ISIS and Islamophobia.

Four Muslim women journalists discussed how their faith and race informs and affects their perspective as journalists as well as ways that their communities, colleagues and organizations interact with them.

The session, held at CAMP on Oct. 30 in Roanoke, Va., was titled “Muslim-American Journalists in an Age of ISIS and Islamophobia.”

The speakers were: Waliya Lari, executive producer at WRAL News in Raleigh, N.C.; Seema Yasmin, medical doctor, staff writer at the Dallas Morning News and professor of public health at the University of Texas; Dilshad Ali, managing editor of the Muslim channel  at Patheos.com, the largest multifaith news and blog site in the world; and Asra Nomani, journalist, author and self-described writer-activist dedicated to reclaiming women’s rights and principles of tolerance in the Muslim world.

Megan Sweas, editor and director of communications at the Center for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, was the moderator.

Although some of the panelists were born in the U.S and some not, they each spoke of the challenges of often having to represent the entirety of Islam in their newsrooms.

“I am a good citizen of the newsroom and am happy to answer my colleagues questions about Islam, but I am the public health reporter,” Seema said.

As an example of the wrong-headedness of such questions, she said, “If I were covering a story about diabetes, my first thought would not be to approach my colleagues who are diabetic.”

Waliya sees her role as journalist as including building bridges between the Muslim community and media. “Much of the disconnect between media and the Muslim community is rooted in ignorance,” she said. “They don’t know what they don’t know.”

Waliya has made a point of educating her colleagues about Islam and cultivating sources within the local Muslim community. She also encourages members of the Muslim community to voice their concerns about coverage directly to the media.

As a result of these efforts, the newsroom has more Muslim sources. “When a story breaks that has an Islamic tie then we have a good array of sources from which to draw,” she said.

Dilshad, whose beat is Islam, spoke of the challenges of maintaining objectivity and balance between her faith and role as a journalist. “I tell my sources that I can’t promise them that my stories will be favorable to them,” she said. “Even if we know each other, I won’t promise people that they will get a pass from me in my coverage.”

As an example, she described a Muslim member of the Obama administration who was angry over what he perceived to be a negative story about his role in the Department of Homeland Security.

“I told him that as a public servant he has to expect criticism,” she said.

Similarly, Asra spoke of the challenges of bringing up difficult discussions about and within the Muslim community.

“We have to be equal opportunity journalists when it comes to our principles and be unafraid to challenge wrongdoing regardless of religion,” she said.