20 September 2010

Islamaphobia, Whitewashes, VOA and Media Criticism

Two reports by VOA correspondents on the controversy over plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City have come under fire. One of the critiques scolded VOA for underplaying anti-Islamic sentiment in the U.S. while the second accused VOA of overplaying anti-Muslim attitudes among Americans.

Yelena Osipova, a student at American University’s School of International Service working on her Master's Degree in International Communication, has a blog called “Global Chaos” which she describes as “The UNdiplomatic blog on public diplomacy and international communication.” In a recent post, she wrote about the issue of American Islamophobia and “the damage this has done to the U.S. image abroad.”

She pointed to a VOA report about a candlelight vigil supporting the right of Muslims to build an Islamic center in lower Manhattan, characterizing it as an “attempted whitewash”. When I asked her why she thought it was a “whitewash”, she explained: “because it does not show all the hostility evident in the society, and emphasizes the 'support' that many show to Muslim Americans (while polls suggest that the majority - even if by a small margin - rather oppose the building of the Islamic Center).” She said she did not think the report was biased, just not comprehensive enough.

On the other hand, Trey Hicks, associate director of government relations at the American Enterprise Institute, claimed another VOA report “reinforced the narrative of those who wish to do us harm—that Americans are warring against Muslims.”

The report he cited began like this: “The controversy over plans to build an Islamic center near the site of the 2001 terrorist attacks on New York City has put many Muslims living in United States on the defensive. But despite a rash of anti-Muslim rhetoric and possible hate crimes, some Muslims see the mosque debate as an opportunity to reaffirm their place in American society.”

Mr. Hicks suggested there is no evidence to back up the references to “possible hate crimes” and “a rash of anti-Muslim rhetoric."

As for evidence of recent hate crimes against Muslims, Newsweek magazine just published an article noting that in a matter of days “a college student allegedly stabbed a New York City cabdriver after the cabbie confirmed he was Muslim…a California imam found his mosque vandalized with graffiti that referenced Ground Zero… (and) more news from New York: police arrested a man for entering a mosque and urinating on prayer rugs…”

Newsweek asks the key question: “are we simply paying closer attention to these sorts of incidents, or are they happening with greater frequency thanks to the mosque controversy?”

Statistics from the Federal Bureau of Investigation show reported hate crimes against Muslims have indeed dropped since their peak in 2001. But their latest data is from 2008. We will have to wait and see if there has been a resurgence in anti-Muslim hate crimes in 2010. In the meantime, though, Newsweek quotes a spokesman for the Center for American-Islamic Relations as asserting anti-Muslim sentiment in the U.S. has skyrocketed as a result of the debate over the proposed Islamic center in lower Manhattan.

It seems apparent both of the VOA reports in question could have contained additional material to make them more comprehensive.

But that is almost always true of any report. The fact is editors and writers have to constantly weigh how much information is enough and whether it is time to move a report to the audience or hold it back.

Journalists also believe this: if you’re being criticized by both sides, you must be doing something right.

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