Good old Laura, she’s still battling away at trying to get some good PR for the ‘Search for Common Ground’ report. Flogging a dead horse given the size and number of the ‘enemies’? Who knows…

Guardian reporter Laura Smith spoke to journalists from Muslim backgrounds about how they felt about the mainstream media’s coverage of Islam and their place in the industry
November 19, 2007 4:05 PM

Last year, I interviewed journalists from Muslim backgrounds about their experiences working within the mainstream press, writes Laura Smith. At a time when opinion about Muslims takes up a great deal of space in newspapers, I was interested to find out how they felt about this coverage and about their own role in it.

The results of those six interviews, conducted alongside the Guardian’s Hugh Muir and published last week in the Greater London Authority report The Search for Common Ground: Muslims, non-Muslims and the UK media, make thought-provoking reading.

Most of the journalists we spoke to had been brought up with the suspicion that the media was biased – a sense not helped by coverage of the Salman Rushdie affair in the late 1980s. But only one had entered the profession with a conscious aim to alter portrayal of Muslims and Islam. The rest gave a range of reasons, from “I’m really nosey” to “I thought it was an interesting career”.

Once working within newsrooms, however, most found it impossible to ignore the way their religious identities were perceived – especially after the terrorist attacks of September 11 2001 and July 7 2005. The way they coped varied.

Some put their heads down and tried to stick to stories that did not involve such subjects. “The thing is I don’t want to be pigeon-holed. I’m a professional journalist, not a professional Paki”, was how one put it. Others began to use their position to contribute to more balanced coverage. One reporter, who had thought she could leave her Muslim identity “in a box away from my role as a journalist” found herself drawn to exploring it. Another put it like this: “I have been thrown into writing about Muslim issues rather than having a massive interest in them. But I’d rather do it than let anyone else do it because I am more aware of the issues. Otherwise you get stuck with stereotypes.”

There were, of course, advantages to being, in many cases, the only Muslim journalist in the building. Several spoke of becoming a “valuable commodity” to the newsdesk and finding themselves with a new status. Others said they had been able to bring in stories other journalists were unable to access – “I can see why it might be reasonable for me rather than Bob Jones to go undercover at Finsbury Park” was how one put it – and of having a positive influence on the way Muslim issues were reported.

But there were pitfalls too, with more than one regarding reporting on such issues as a “gilded cage” or a “cul-de-sac”. The assumption that they knew more than they did was also problematic. One reporter told me: “People assume that because of my name I know about Islamic society… the religion, the language, the background. The reality is quite different.” “I haven’t got a magic hotline to Osama or Bakri Mohammed,” said another. “People think I must know people and I’m hiding it. Of the Muslims I know, 99% of them are my relatives.”

The struggle to retain their integrity, an issue facing all journalists, was particularly fraught. More than one journalist we spoke to had been asked to infiltrate al-Qaida, and regarded the idea with incredulity. Others felt they had compromised their religious beliefs. One said he felt like a “charlatan” attending mosques to pick up stories, while another said of a particularly difficult incident: “I felt I had used my Muslim background for my own glory but I didn’t have the confidence to say I was really upset about it.”

Despite strong feelings about being in such a minority among reporters (“There are times when I just want to leave and do something where I am not this token Asian”, said one), they were on the whole wary of calling for ‘more Muslim journalists’ to improve coverage. Most called instead for a more representative workforce in general – “If journalism is about finding out the view from the ground then class is as important as race or religion”, said one – and for all journalists to educate themselves, whatever their background. As one put it: “It’s up to the journalists to be more aware about the country we live in.”

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