We need more New Zealand media coverage of Muslims and Islam because what we do here is markedly different from the rest of the world. Like many New Zealanders we are trying to make sense of what happened at the Al Noor and Linwood mosques in Christchurch. That it happened in New Zealand shocks us, but not that it happened at all.
We say this because Western mainstream news media have increasingly presented us with sensationalised, unbalanced and often misleading coverage of Muslims and Islam. Studies of media coverage in Australia, the UK, Europe and the US report a barrage of stories that demonise Muslims as terrorists, and represent Islam as a barbaric, violent and repressive religion.
Mainstream media, and increasingly social media, play a vital role in our imaginings of ourselves as a nation because they circulate so widely. Although they don’t tell us what to think, how media construct stories sets limits on how we can think about Muslims and Islam. The perspectives embedded in mainstream and social media content become part of everyday, taken-for-granted, commonsense.
When Western media tell a consistently negative and limited story, people who don’t have actual experience with Muslims are highly likely to internalise this view, especially because mainstream media are expected to adhere to journalistic principles of accuracy, fairness and balance.
As a result, it may be surprising that attacks of this nature, most often by white Western men linked to right-wing extremist movements, do not happen more often, especially when both mainstream and white supremacist social media provide a consistent and unlimited source of fuel. In 2018, the Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism found that most extremist murders in the US last year were committed by white men linked to right-wing extremists. Thus, the horrific killings in New Zealand may reflect the power and impact of media coverage that provides a steady diet of one-sided, negative and fear-inducing content.
As a Muslim primary teacher, Farzana experienced first-hand the huge impact of the Christchurch tragedy on the Muslim community. Describing her initial response, she writes, “As a mother, I questioned the safety of my children. I questioned the safety of myself as a Muslim woman with a head scarf. I feared for our mothers and sisters. I felt empty. I felt emotional. I wanted to scream, the pain was unbearable. Nothing seemed to ease the pain.”
The horrific killings in New Zealand may reflect the power and impact of media coverage that provides a steady diet of one-sided, negative and fear-inducing content.
But her initial response changed rapidly. Almost immediately Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern flew to Christchurch to share the grief of those directly affected. She described the actions as terrorism. In comments widely covered by media in New Zealand and internationally, she said of those who died: “They were New Zealanders. They are us. And because they are us, we, as a nation, we mourn them.”
For Farzana, this response reflected New Zealand-produced stories in her past analysis of coverage of Muslims and Islam in the New Zealand Herald and Stuff, and gave her hope for her future in this country. She writes: “As I kept changing TV channels, my attention was soon focused on the messages of unity, sympathy and kindness from our Prime Minister right through to our TV1 and TV3 news reporters. We cried and mourned together. I didn’t feel like an outsider any more. I started believing again that there is still hope and kindness in the world.”
What Ardern expressed and the New Zealand media produced in the aftermath of the shootings was a very different perspective of Muslims, Islam and what counts as terrorism than we usually see in Western media. It was inclusive, respectful, nuanced and balanced, and sought to present accurate information from the perspectives of Muslim New Zealanders.
Farzana writes: “In the context of the current tragedy, the New Zealand media coverage focused on bringing the communities together. The media outlets and news reporters showed their sympathy, support and aroha towards the Muslim community. Seeing the support from New Zealanders provided different emotions. Emotions of unity, hope, love and compassion. This unity signifies that we all believe in the same foundations of humanity—love, kindness and empathy.”
In Farzana’s research, New Zealand-produced stories also focused on racism by non-Muslims, consistently included Muslim voices and viewpoints, and presented Islam as a forgiving faith, as in the following examples: Racist abuse against taxi-driver caught on tape, Racist ranter lays low, as he’s invited to ‘Islam open day’, and Muslim school leader dismayed at reaction.
These perspectives, widespread in coverage of last week’s mosque shootings, may reflect the New Zealand media response to pressure from the Muslim community for fair representation and active engagement to better understand and write sensitively about cultural and religious issues. We should be proud of this. This coverage has impacted how we think and behave.
“As I kept changing TV channels, my attention was soon focused on the messages of unity, sympathy and kindness from our Prime Minister right through to our TV1 and TV3 news reporters. We cried and mourned together. I didn’t feel like an outsider any more. I started believing again that there is still hope and kindness in the world.”
As Farzana writes, “For the first time, many New Zealanders entered a mosque—a place that perhaps a lot of New Zealanders would never have seen themselves going to, as the international media stories often portray mosques as places where Muslims get extreme views, whereas in fact mosques are a place of worship and unity.”
“A lot of non-Muslim women experienced the head scarf for the first time. The messages of peace and harmony coming from the Muslim community has perhaps changed the perception of New Zealanders about Muslims. And reinforced the understanding that Islam itself means peace.”
The downside of Farzana’s research is that only one-third of stories were written by New Zealand journalists. The rest came from international news agencies or news sources and overwhelmingly repeated negative Islamophobic perspectives identified in overseas research. International stories focused on Muslims overseas, and told a story of Muslims as violent terrorists, and Islam as a threat to West.
This was particularly visible in provocative and misleading headlines such as Sex slaves normal part of Islam. Indeed, over half of the stories used violent, frightening or extreme headlines, and many implied links between Islam and terrorism. In essence, the international coverage ‘othered’ Muslims, suggesting they are completely unlike ‘us’.
Also notable in Farzana’s research was that acts of violence by a non-Muslim were seldom if ever referred to as terrorism. The coverage often individualised male perpetrators as mentally unstable and their faith—usually Christian—was neither mentioned nor blamed. In contrast, if the same act was carried out by a Muslim, the entire religion of Islam was blamed and the act identified as an Islamic act of terror.
Although Farzana found New Zealand-produced stories more diverse and inclusive, it is disturbing that almost two-thirds of stories about Muslims and Islam were overseas-produced and did not necessarily represent a New Zealand viewpoint. Although this is not the case in the current coverage, we have concerns for what happens in the longer-term.
Ardern told Parliament, “We wish for every member of our communities to feel safe. Safety means being free from fear of violence and free from the fear of sentiments of racism and hate, which creates a place where violence can flourish. Every one of us has the power to change that.”
Mainstream news media have a particularly important role to play in this change because their messages reach the most people and powerfully shape public understandings. New Zealand media producers must reflect on where stories come from, and what agendas underpin them. Farzana’s research suggests we need more New Zealand journalists telling stories that reflect New Zealand understandings of issues, rather than publishing unbalanced, sensationalised, hate- and fear-inducing material from overseas.
Farzana’s final reflection is this: “I have never been more content in the country—seeing the support and aroha makes me even more proud as a New Zealander. As humans, we all have one social responsibility and that is to show kindness, respect and tolerance of all people.”
Our hope is that New Zealand, through its media outlets and journalists, will continue to show the rest of the world that this is possible, through continuing to produce inclusive, balanced and nuanced perspectives of all communities in Aotearoa.