By Shabina S. Khatri
Old-school author Elbert Hubbard once said, “experience is the name every one gives his mistakes.” If that’s indeed the case, the now-infamous cartoon controversy has been quite the “experience” for our Muslim community.
I can’t even begin to count the number of mistakes we (collectively speaking, as in the global ummah) made in response to the degradation of our Prophet (SAW).
But in the interest of productivity, let us skip that step, and instead turn toward the future, applying what we’ve learned to make sure we handle things better the next time around. (And yes, unfortunately there is always a next time)
The lesson I’d like to focus on involves the media – namely, understanding how it works, so that we can begin to use it to advance (rather than defeat) our own agenda.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran an intriguing piece about celebrities who are constant fodder for tabloid publications. Like everyone, famous people need the media as much as the media needs them. That’s why handling paparazzi can get so tricky. The Journal writes:
The photographers’ onslaught has put stars in a tough spot. If they ignore the magazines, they let such pictures define their public image. But sitting down for formulaic interviews and staged publicity shots won’t necessarily satisfy the magazines’ lust for juicy stories.
The answer is manipulation so subtle it’s hard to say if there’s any manipulation at all…
It’s an ingenious strategy. Rather than wait to be surprised by flashbulbs, the savviest celebrities are now tipping off select photographers about special events. That gives celebs the chance to be photographed on their own terms, while at the same time granting the media the elite access they seek.
Thus, famous people have effectively turned a potential enemy into an ally – a trick that we Muslims should consider appropriating for ourselves.
To do this, there are a few things we must first understand about the media (and here I will switch to first-person and speak as a journalist):
1) In terms of story ideas, we are always looking for something new. The same old masjid open house article is not going to get the play it used to, because that event is just not novel anymore. The key is pitching the “something different” that will get editors excited and readers interested enough to read past the first two lines/continue watching after the first three seconds. Perhaps this year, you expect blockbuster attendance, or the leadership is unveiling a new program that the public might be interested in. Think fresh, and you will be rewarded for it.
2) Of course, that’s only if you can communicate your ideas effectively. That means taking the time to establish a rapport with your media outlets – before something big happens. Use the Internet to find out which journalists cover ethnic and/or religious issues and introduce yourself to them via e-mail. Ask them if they would like to be kept abreast of what’s going on in your community, and promise to only drop them a line or phone call occasionally, so they know you don’t intend to be a pest. Also, it always helps to offer photo suggestions and/or numerical facts and figures with your article ideas. Even if these journalists take up only three of the ten ideas you’ve pitched them, you should consider yourself successful. Why?
3) Because you’ve set yourself up for the big payoff. In cultivating a relationship of trust and respect with these journalists, you have now become the first person they think of when something major in your community happens. At my newspaper, for example, when the cartoon controversy hit the fan, the reporter who wrote the story headed straight for the Muslims with whom he had already established a rapport – because he knew them to be reasonable, decent people. And if they were angry and disappointed about what happened, then that indicated this was something to be taken seriously. Additionally, if these people ever expressed dissatisfaction or approval with a story, that opinion will hit home with a reporter more so than if a total stranger had expressed the same sentiments.
Kudos if you’ve come this far in the media game. Experience has now taught you that information (who has it) and timing (who has it first) are everything. This is the time to start playing media outlets against one another. Say you’ve got an interesting story pitch about a new matchmaking program for Muslim singles (an article that actually recently ran in the New York Times). That in and of itself may not generate much interest among a mainstream publication. But let’s say, in sending one of your regular e-mail thank you’s to a journalist, that you “happened” to mention something about the program’s opening event – how it’s closed to the media, but you thought the reporter might want to look into it. That very idea of having exclusive access could be just what’s needed to draw attention to a story that might be otherwise have been overlooked.
I know it sounds sneaky. But the only way to harness the power of mass dissemination is to understand it, and exploiting a journalist’s desire to get the scoop is just an application of that understanding. The truth is, many reporters (including myself) actually come to expect this from our most media savvy sources.
Of course, for those of you who don’t wish to exert all this effort building rapport with the media, there are still small things you can do to improve Muslims’ relationship with journalists, and thus our coverage and thus public opinion of our deen and its followers. Those measures include:
-Offering tons of feedback – on any story or piece that moved you. It doesn’t have to be related to Islam. Maybe you really liked an article on secondary education, or were offended by a news segment on teen dating. If I were an editor, I would be delighted to read a letter to the editor about the Oscars from someone with a Muslim-sounding name. That would lead me to believe that Muslims care about more than just their “own” issues. And that kind of feedback, even if it’s a simple two-line e-mail, goes miles in “normalizing” Muslim Americans into the fabric of this nation.
-Becoming a customer. News outlets tend to pay more attention if the person who is contacting them is a paid subscriber. If you’re a customer, they must cater to you. So fork over the cash, and let your voice be heard.
InshAllah this very basic primer on the media has been helpful. I’ve been a Muslim a lot longer than I’ve been a journalist, but I don’t think the two identities have to be mutually exclusive. That’s actually my final suggestion for ridding the world of media misconceptions about Muslims – acknowledging that in this Information Age, we have a far better chance of doing this by joining, rather than trying to shut down or censor, the news-making machines.