We need fair and accurate reporting on Muslim Americans. Here’s how funders can help.

Angelica Das
Jun 26, 2020 · 5 min read

One of the many ways funders can support equitable journalism is by investing in fair, just, and accurate reporting on and representation of Muslim Americans. This week, a troubling story unfolded in Tennessee and in national news that demonstrates just how easily Muslim American communities can be targeted, misrepresented, and deeply harmed through lack of accountability.

Here’s what happened

On June 21, The Tennessean, the state’s flagship paper, printed a full-page ad from a religious cult in the Sunday edition, claiming that “Islam” would “detonate a nuclear device” in Nashville on July 18, 2020. Digital ads from this group also appeared online. This was not the first time the paper had printed an ad from this group.

Zulfat Suara, Board Member for the American Muslim Advisory Council (AMAC) and Nashville Councilwoman, and Samar Ali, Founding President of Millions of Conversations, both contacted The Tennessean to raise the alarm about how Muslim Americans, particularly in Tennessee, had become targets for hate groups. Both leaders received calls from the paper’s editor with apologies and a commitment to investigation. The paper also pledged that the advertising money would be donated to AMAC.

By mid-day, The Tennessean issued a public apology and published a story indicating they would investigate how the ad was published “in violation of the newspaper’s long-established standards, which “clearly forbid hate speech.” Leadership at both the paper and Gannett, which owns the paper, condemned the violation.

That afternoon, The New York Times published a story about the event. The Times article did not include references, quotes, interviews, or mentions of Tennessee residents outside of the paper itself. It did not include perspectives from Muslim Americans in Tennessee. AMAC and Millions of Conversations, both founded and based in Tennessee, were never contacted. Instead, sources included the newspaper’s editor, a white sports reporter who had tweeted his concern, the paper’s vice president of sales, as well as out-of-state experts. The paper also included a quote from the man who identified himself as the leader of the extremist group behind the ad (who wanted a refund).

The Times article did not include references, quotes, interviews, or mentions of Tennessee residents outside of the paper itself. It did not include perspectives from Muslim Americans in Tennessee.

The next day, on June 22, The Tennessean published an op-ed by Samar Ali: “Running this disinformation ad was more than a lapse in judgment. Disinformation is Hate’s primary tool in today’s environment as it continues to mislead communities as COVID-19 spreads rapidly around our country.”

Ali goes on to explain that Millions of Conversations exists to fight this kind of disinformation and encourage Americans “to engage with trustworthy information and challenge their preconceived ideas about other communities.”

The Tennessean also reported on June 22 that Gannett had fired an advertising manager responsible for publishing the ad. Three advertising staff had chances to review the ad before publication — none raised any concerns. The article included interviews with both AMAC and the group responsible for the ad.

The same day, the Times again ran a story about the firing and The Tennessean’s plans to administer diversity and inclusion training. The article repeated the extremist group’s request for a refund. And again, no Muslim Americans in Tennessee were quoted.

What are the implications for racial equity in journalism?

Muslim Americans were deeply harmed by the lack of oversight and accountability in The Tennessean’s advertising arm. At best, this ad perpetuated ugly stereotypes, and at worst, it put lives in danger by equating Islam with terrorism. A 2016 Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) report shows evidence that as we draw closer to the November election, identity politics will increase attention on and targeting of Muslim people and communities.

An ISPU media training hosted in Chicago. Credit: ISPU

Let’s be clear: The Tennessean took the appropriate steps. They publicly accepted responsibility, provided reparations, and made staffing changes.

The coverage in the Times, however, is a powerful indicator of how wide the gap is in understanding what it means to represent and include community voices. This national newsroom turned away from the people whose lives are impacted. It featured voices from individuals far removed from the story itself. It prioritized the voices of the perpetrators.

Trusted, responsible news must include the voices of people who have been left out of — and often harmed by — traditional news coverage. And we must do more than include more voices: We must shift power, leadership, and funding to historically marginalized groups in order for news to serve its purpose as a critical community resource. These are just some of the groups funders can support who we can count on to help us bridge the gap:

  • Millions of Conversations is a national nonprofit working to counteract harmful narratives about Muslim Americans, including the myth that Islam is in any way a threat. They are changing the story about what is a threat, in Ali’s words “COVID-19, systemic racism and polarization.” (Millions of Conversations is a Democracy Fund grantee.)
  • The American Muslim Advisory Council promotes civic engagement, community-building, and provides media training to support accurate reporting on and representation of Muslim Americans in Tennessee.
  • 8.5 Million, a project by ReThink Media, is a robust database of sources and experts on Muslim, Arab, and South Asian issues with contact information for reporters. (ReThink Media is a former Democracy Fund grantee.)
  • The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding has a guide for journalists for how to cover Muslim Americans objectively and creatively. And in partnership with the Pulitzer Center, ISPU is hosting ongoing trainings (with support from Democracy Fund).

Funders can advance racial equity in journalism and support fair, just, and accurate reporting by investing in this work. Democracy Fund is proud to be part of the Racial Equity in Journalism Fund, which is currently supporting 16 grantees led by and serving communities of color. And there are many more organizations working to ensure journalism is more reflective of all communities, particularly those that have been historically stereotyped or harmed by media. We hope you will join us in supporting this crucial work.

Angelica Das

Written by

Senior Program Associate, Engaged Journalism, Democracy Fund

The Engaged Journalism Lab

Welcome to the Engaged Journalism Lab, a project of Democracy Fund. Here you'll find blog posts, case studies, event recaps, and more ― all centered around building trusted, inclusive, and audience-driven journalism.

Angelica Das

Written by

Senior Program Associate, Engaged Journalism, Democracy Fund

The Engaged Journalism Lab

Welcome to the Engaged Journalism Lab, a project of Democracy Fund. Here you'll find blog posts, case studies, event recaps, and more ― all centered around building trusted, inclusive, and audience-driven journalism.

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