Reporting Islam: Should the media muzzle itself?
SHOULD journalists be more guarded in the way they report protests against those with an Islamic faith?
The Australian Government certainly thinks so.
The Commonwealth Attorney-General Office is a funding a year-long project to develop resources and training material to assist journalists with their coverage of stories involving Islam and Muslim communities.
The project is being spearheaded by Professor Mark Pearson from Griffith University and will essentially involve newsrooms undergoing training on the dos and don'ts of covering Islam.
Prof. Pearson attended an Australian Regional Media editors conference on the Sunshine Coast this week.
Editors themselves were given a multiple choice test on Islamic terms and facts and figures relevant to Australia as part of the exercise.
Most of us probably didn't do that well.
It highlighted that many Islamic terms used in the mainstream media are used mistakenly.
The term jihad, for example, literally means struggle or effort.
Yet, it is most commonly used in the context of violence - or a holy war.
In his address to editors, Prof. Pearson acknowledged the need for freedom of speech, but he argued it was not the role of journalists to enflame hatred towards any particular group, regardless of their background.
He made comparisons with the need for journalists to responsibly report on issues of mental health.
Many newsrooms, including those at ARM, have undergone Mindframe training to ensure reporting which may trigger copycat suicides, for example, is eliminated.
But in the context of the debate about Islam and suggested links to terrorism extremists, there is a real danger that journalists can completely block out voices of protesters.
In regional areas, often populated by conservative people, protests about mosques coming to town have been big news.
As our editorial director told us, we should not deny people in our communities a chance to have their voices heard.
But nor should we be channels that simply report hatred and misinformation.
Prof. Pearson gave editors a checklist of about 30 questions to ask when covering Islamic issues.
The reality of day to day journalism, of course, especially in the online world, affords no such luxury.
But if the end result is that we have balanced articles with views and counterviews, that has to be better for our understanding of people from different backgrounds and religion.
Prof. Pearson also reminded editors of the real risk that inflammatory reporting may only serve to alienate the Muslim community further and fuel extremism among a minority.
If that led to a terrorism attack, would the media then have blood on its hands?
As with every story, journalists are expected to abide by a code of ethics which covers issues such as fairness and balance.
In Australia, we are also subject to strict anti-vilification laws, something which means some of the comments posted on this website never see the light of day
That said, we are far more liberal with our comments than most media organisations, particularly the ABC.
We believe that voices should be heard - on both sides of the debate.