If you can’t beat them, join them
By Faisal Kutty – A study of 3,400 journalists released last week concluded that the U.S. media are out of touch with the average American. No kidding.
The study carried out by Peter Brown of the Orlando Sentinel, found that journalists are less likely to form families, have children, and do volunteer work. They are less likely to be religious or know their neighbor and more likely to support abortion. “There is a gap between what one could refer to as normal people and journalists,” says Brown, a former Nieman Fellow and former chief political writer for Scripps Howard News Service.
We don’t need a survey to prove this, but at least now there is some hard factual basis to the claim that minorities, including religious minorities don’t get a fair shake from the media. Clearly, if the media have a “poor feel for the mass of Americans,” then we can certainly say that they have an even poorer feel for minorities.
On March 25, the Toronto Chechnya Task Force held a rally in the city to protest the Russian brutalities and bring attention to the plight of Chechen civilians. The event was sponsored by all the major Muslim organizations in the city.
One of the stated objectives of the march was to bring attention to the plight of Chechen civilians. In fact, a number of Members of Parliament have raised the issue in the federal legislature but have not gotten very far. Part of the reason is the lack of any real concern expressed by the general population.
Thanks to the well coordinated promotional work by the Task Force, more than 2,000 people managed to show up for the rally. The police blocked streets as the protestors marched 1.5 kilometres on two of the busiest streets in Toronto. Children holding posters reading “save the Chechen children” and “Chechens have rights too” led the march. The media could not have asked for a better photo opportunity or timing considering that it corresponded with elections in Russia. Moreover, the Task Force even released a statement calling for a rejection of Vladimir Putin.
According to the Task Force media spokesperson, Anwaar Syed, advanced notice was given to about seventy-five local media outlets. In fact, press releases were sent out three weeks before, two weeks before and twice in the week leading up to the rally. Moreover, according to Syed, some of the major media houses were personally invited. The organizers even provided those that showed up with impressive media kits.
Essentially, the Task Force did everything possible to notify the media of this very significant event.
From a business perspective, coverage would have been a win-win situation. As the most talked about event in the city’s Muslim community (between 300,000 and 400,000 depending on whose figures you use) for over a month, coverage would have earned a great deal of goodwill and only added to the bottom line of these media corporations.
What happened? About a dozen journalists showed up. Some fishing for sensationalism wanted to know if the organizers expected any trouble. Another reporter from a national TV news network, revealing her comprehensive knowledge of the Muslim community, wanted to know if non-Chechen Muslims were expected to join the rally! Either the reporter was joking or did not notice the crowd of 2,000 — mostly Somalis, Indo-Pakistani, West Indians and Arabs, many in traditional garb to boot.
The rally made a few seconds on a couple of the TV news broadcasts and got some time on the radio, presumably because traffic was held up. Of the four daily newspapers in the city (Toronto Star, Toronto Sun, National Post and the Globe and Mail), three ignored it while the Sun published a photograph. Two of the three that ignored it do not have a Sunday edition, but normally in situations like this they would have something in the Monday paper. Interestingly, less significant events attracted coverage. For instance, the Toronto Star found space to dedicate roughly half a page, including photographs, to a protest by about 200 Macedonians. An earlier anti-NATO protest of about 1,000 also attracted more coverage.
Not surprisingly, the feeling in the Muslim community was one of disappointment. Many called around to inquire why the protest was virtually ignored. Indeed, one keen media observer, Abubakar Kasim, sent out an email titled “shame on the media.” He also wrote a scathing letter to one of the newspapers. Many wondered why this event was not newsworthy when smaller protests held the same weekend made the news.
Brown’s study found that the personnel at the nation’s 1,489 dailies, as disconnected as they were from the general population, wielded an inordinate influence on perceptions of reality. These gatekeepers can essentially make or break news. In the case of our rally, to cite one minor example, the gatherers and interpreters of the “news” did not feel that the event was worthy of coverage. The direct impact of Chechnya not being a media cause is that most people don’t care because they don’t see it highlighted by the media and the vicious circle continues. How many other such instances and stories never get past the editorial sieve? What is the cumulative impact on society of such censorship or neglect?
The fact that only 11% of the 54,700 journalists in America are minorities does not help. Of this eleven percent, according to the 1998 Newsroom Census released by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), 5% are Black, 4% Hispanic, 2% Asian and less than 1% Native American. This is clearly not reflective of American society. And the situation in Canada is no different and in fact may be worse.
“You can’t cover a community unless you understand it,” says Pila Martinez, a reporter with the Arizona Daily Star and president of Concerned Media Professionals. “That means that the best person for a story involving Hispanics might be a Hispanic reporter. He or she may have built-in knowledge and familiarity with the topic (or) issue and might be better able to connect with sources.”
Alison Smith, a reporter/anchorwoman with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), told the 1998 annual Canadian Islamic Congress (CIC) conference, that if Muslims feel that they are not getting balanced coverage then the community should encourage its “children to join the [media] enemy.” Indeed, it seems increasingly clear that this may be the only option if the community is to make any significant inroads into how the media views and portrays Muslims.
Faisal Kutty is a Toronto lawyer and writer and is also a columnist for the Washington Report On Middle East Affairs
Note: First Published 4/7/2000 – Political – Article Ref: IV0004-872
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