By The Numbers
These are the results of a year-long investigation into Australia’s media coverage of Islam and Muslims.
For the entire year of 2017, OnePath Network tracked how 5 of Australia’s biggest newspapers reported on Islam. We wanted to see exactly how the media portrayed the 2.6% of the Australian population that identify as Muslim, and whether or not journalists and columnists were fair in their coverage. This is what we found.
THE MURDOCH PRESS REALLY DOES HAVE A THING AGAINST MUSLIMS
Whilst it isn’t exactly news that newspapers like the Daily Telegraph and The Australian talk about Islam a lot, what is really shocking is just how much they do it. We focused on 5 newspapers owned by Rupert Murdoch’s company News Ltd., namely the Australian, the Daily Telegraph, the Herald Sun, the Courier Mail and the Advertiser. In these 5 newspapers alone, we found almost 3000 articles that referred to Islam or Muslims alongside words like violence, extremism, terrorism or radical.
That’s over 8 articles a day in the Murdoch press slamming Muslims. If all of those were put together, that would be a full double-page spread. Every single day.
We also found 152 front pages over the year that featured Islam in some negative capacity. A lot of the time, these articles and exclusives were the featured item, the most important story for selling the newspaper.
When we looked more closely, we saw that certain names came up time and time again, as they have been for almost 2 decades. We looked into 6 of the most controversial commentators in the Australian news media, including figures like Andrew Bolt, Miranda Devine and Janet Albrechtsen. On average, 31% of their opinion pieces were devoted to Islam, with the overwhelming majority of them being negative and divisive in nature. For Jennifer Oriel, that number was 54%. Even though they are stated to be “opinion” pieces, they are often written as fact and encourage.
In every statistic we found, from negative coverage to front-page features to audience write-ins, we came to the same conclusion: the way the media talks about Islam in Australia is disproportionate, divisive, and dangerous.
DURING 2017, THERE WERE 145 FRONT PAGES THAT TALK ABOUT ISLAM
THE MOST OVERBLOWN EVENTS OF THE YEAR
Whilst a general overview clearly shows just how disproportionate the negative coverage of Islam is, it’s only when you zoom in and see the actual issues that the obsessive and unnecessary nature of the coverage becomes clear. And it wasn’t just about terrorism. Many of the most absurd and overblown examples of coverage come from issues that the Murdoch media highlighted by themselves, dragging the rest of Australia into their worldview. Here’s a couple of ridiculous highlights from a year of crazy coverage.
After a heated discussion on the ABC’s February 13 Q&A program, in which Yassmin Abdel-Magied claimed that Islam was “the most feminist religion”, the Sudanese-Australian engineer and activist has been endlessly scrutinised by News Ltd. owned media. Over 200 articles have been dedicated to commenting on everything from her role as an ABC presenter, to her twitter feed, to her recent move to London. In April, she also made an infamous post on her Facebook page, saying “LEST.WE.FORGET. (Manus, Nauru, Syria, Palestine….)”, using the phrase commonly associated with ANZAC day and remembrance of national values to bring attention to the crises of war and refugees both near and abroad. The post appeared only on her personal Facebook page, and was taken down and retracted within an hour. That, however, didn’t stop the post being highlighted and sensationalised as much as possible, with 5 front pages and over 100 articles in News Ltd. newspapers describing the comments as “offensive” (Daily Telegraph, 27 April) a “real sin” (Herald Sun, 28 April) and a “hateful… vile slur” (Daily Telegraph, 26 April). The coverage drummed up immense anger and hatred on social media, with a conservative commentator on radio station 2GB, Prue Macsween, saying that she would be “tempted to run her over” if she saw her on the street.
With the number of incendiary front-pages in 2017 about government and police policy regarding terrorism, a casual observer would not be faulted for thinking that Australia was actively engaged in daily combat on its streets. In fact, it would hardly be surprising if that was the perception in the offices of Daily Telegraph and the Australian. Featuring front-page headlines like “This Means War” (Daily Telegraph, July 17), “Enemy at the Gates” (March 3) and “In the Firing Line” (May 22), the Daily Telegraph took great pains to terrify its audience about the threat of terrorism in Australia. A number of ‘exclusives’ claimed that “there is nothing stopping scores of barbaric homegrown jihadists, including brutes waging war for ISIS, from lawfully returning to the country” (Daily Telegraph, March 3), with “deadly extremists who have fought overseas.. roaming our streets because frustrated authorities don’t have enough evidence to put them behind bars” (Daily Telegraph, May 29), as well as the news that “NSW police will now carry military-style assault rifles on our streets to protect us from deranged terrorist killers” (Daily Telegraph, June 8). In reality though, these ‘exclusives’ referred to the opinions of a small number of politicians and analysts and was in no way proportionate to any actual threat to the Australian people.
When the debate over allowing same-sex marriage in Australia was at its peak in September, the Daily Telegraph featured the headline “Same-Sex Jihad” on the front page, claiming that “Sydney’s Islamic leaders have launched a jihad against same-sex marriage” (Daily Telegraph, 19 September). The story referred to three community figures, with unsubstantiated claims about sermons by the Grand Mufti Dr. Ibrahim Abdallah, as well as a number of sensationalised quotes by Keysar Trad. This particular report, which was not found in any other newspaper or publication, stunk of an attempt to mock the Muslim community on this issue, as well as paint Muslims as outsiders in this debate whose views were not welcome.
Punchbowl Boys High School was the target of a number of supposed controversies throughout the year. The first came with the sacking of principal Chris Griffiths after allegedly refusing to implement the state government’s deradicalisation program (Daily Telegraph, 3 March). Then came the incendiary headlines “Allah Allah Allah, Oi Oi Oi” (Daily Telegraph, March 13) and “Behead of the Class” (Daily Telegraph, March 16), which claimed the school was a hotbed of radicalisation, with kids in year 5 “using religious language” and “chanting the Koran”, implying that these were worrying examples of indoctrination and extremism, as well as claiming the “infamous” school was disrespecting women and police, and had Islam prayer group bullies who supposedly targeted children who didn’t pray (Daily Telegraph, 13 March). To support their claims the Daily Telegraph featured an interview with the replacement school principal Robert Patruno, who contrary to the front pages above, confirmed students were in fact respecting their female teachers and that he had found no evidence of Islamic State sympathisers at the school (Daily Telegraph, 12 March). With no sources or evidence for their claims (despite mass scrutiny and a Department of Education ‘appraisal’), as well as a new principal who disagreed with their accusations, the Daily Telegraph instead published a derogatory and offensive opinion piece by renowned Islamophobe Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who said regarding the school: “Whether it is in Raqqa or Punchbowl the Islamist strategy with regard to children is the same: indoctrinate them, prevent critical thinking, then accept and implement sharia law” (Daily Telegraph, 27 March).
OUR STANDARDS AND EXPECTATIONS OF JOURNALISTS ARE TOO LOW
Media coverage of Islam does not exist in a vacuum of facts and objectivity. The reality is, print news is a struggling industry, and a very effective method for selling newspapers is fear, sensation, and drama. The more that these methods are normalised, the more they will be used against anybody who the media paints as the next ‘enemy’ of ‘Australian values’. As Charles Morton from Victoria Police Media put it, “At the end of the day, they want to shift newspapers” (Ewart 2016).
This is not just an issue of bias or exaggeration in individual reports. As we found in our research, the overwhelming scale of association between Islam and terror, extremism, violence, and oppression through phrasing and word choice is far more significant than any isolated events or reports. If 2891 articles include the phrase “Islamic terrorism” or “Muslim oppression”, those ideas stick.
This is coupled with stereotypical pictures and images on front-pages and feature stories that are prominently shown in order to sell more papers. These images have been shown to significantly shape the way Islam and Muslims are framed in the public eye (Ewart 2017). In fact there have been a high number of incidents in which images have had to be withdrawn and apologies made for incorrect associations with events. Many newspapers seem to have a policy of “show the face, apologise later.” This kind of approach not only affects public perceptions, it has serious ramifications on the individuals that these papers choose to ‘name and shame’, whether correctly or not.
Whether Muslims stay silent and take the heat, or ‘play the game’ and push back, the result is the same: public animosity and resentment of Islam in Australia.
However, what is said and shown is only one aspect of the equation. As Thomas Huckin points out, “what is not said and/or written is equally powerful because of the ideological role it plays” (Patil 2016). It is simply naive to think that journalists don’t have a choice in what they choose to talk about, and that those choices don’t have consequences on the public’s perception.
FEAR OF ISLAM IS NOT BASED ON KNOWLEDGE OF ISLAM
In 2016, an Essential Report found that 49% of Australians supported a ban on Muslim immigration to Australia. Another poll by the Australian National University found that 71% of Australians were concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism locally. In the same year however, researchers at Griffith University found that 70% of Australians believed that they themselves knew “little to nothing about the religion and its adherents” (O’Donnell 2017), despite the disproportionate coverage of Islam and Muslims in the media shown above.
It takes a special kind of fear mongering and sensationalism to convince the majority of a nation to ban a community they themselves recognise they know almost nothing about. It is simply naive to ignore the serious role the media plays in making Muslims seem ‘different’ to the rest of Australian society. As Anne Aly, an academic and MP for Cowan, put it:
“In the popular Australian media… Muslims have been characterized as non-members of the Australian community – relegating them to the space of the ‘other’, alien, foreign and incompatible with Australian cultural values.” (Aly 2007)
In 2016, 2,886 Australians died in relation to suicide, whilst 0 people died from a terrorist attack on Australian soil. Yet in the 2017 budget, the federal government allocated $7.2 million to the ANZ Counter-Terrorism Committee, and only $2.1 million to suicide prevention and awareness. That is not to take away from the work that our police and intelligence agencies do to keep us safe. But it’s essential that we remember that our beliefs as a society do not just affect how we view or treat the individuals around us. They shape government policy, institutional agendas and cultural norms. And those things have a far greater power to harm a community that is already struggling to find its place in Australian society.
In 2017, the Islamophobia Register Australia published the report Islamophobia in Australia: 2014-2016, which found “an observable coincidence between spikes of vilification reported to the Islamophobia Register and terror attacks, anti-terror legislation and negative media coverage of high profile Muslim leaders” (Iner 2017), such as the with the case of the Grand Mufti. It also showed that the majority of Islamophobic insults were not related to terrorism, meaning that simply the existence and visibility of Muslims and Islam is now the main motivation behind these hate attacks.
The reality is, print news is a struggling industry, and a very effective method for selling newspapers is fear, sensation and drama.
Aly also noted that “attempts by Muslims to articulate their views and opinions in the popular media often draw opposition from the public about accommodating the needs of Muslims” (Aly 2007). This can clearly be seen in the case of Yassmin Abdel-Magied’s infamous Q&A appearance and ANZAC day post, or in the debates surrounding Halal food.
In other words, whether Muslims stay silent and take the heat, or ‘play the game’ and push back, the result is the same: public animosity and resentment of Islam in Australia.
Even to someone who has spent years working with Muslim communities to defend against anti-Muslim hate, the findings of this new study are astounding. That approximately 70% of Australians have little to no knowledge of Islam and Muslims, yet are concerned about the rise of Islamic extremism locally, demonstrates how disturbingly influential tabloid journalism is in Australia. It’s time Australians acknowledge these publications for what they really are tabloid journalism aimed at preying on irrational fears of the unknown and sensationalising isolated incidents to increase profits. These practices show a complete lack of social and professional responsibility and create real safety risks for the vast majority of Australian Muslims who want nothing more than to build a peaceful life for themselves and their families.”BRICE HAMACK, ISLAMOPHOBIA REGISTER OF AUSTRALIA
If 2017 taught us anything, it’s that we have a serious lack of faith in journalism, and for good reason. A Pew Poll in January 2018 found that whilst people around the world “overwhelmingly agree that the news media should be unbiased… many [say] their media do not deliver.” We are grappling with the critical question of what ethical journalism really is, and so far we haven’t found the answer. All we do know is that our current approach is not working.
There are certain actions we can all take that will benefit our situation. Building relationships between communities is one of the most effective ways to ensure that we do the right thing by each other. For journalists and media outlets, that means any coverage that alienates or dehumanises a community is simply bad reporting, and needs to be avoided. Strong relationships at an individual and organisational level allow legitimate voices to be heard, and legitimate issues to be addressed.
For everyone else, that means better understanding where and how we get our news. If we know the difference between a trustworthy story and an untrustworthy story, the financial and political incentive for fake news drastically decreases. When we hold the media to a higher standard, they will have no choice but to meet it.
Download the full report
J Ewart, M Pearson & G Healy (2016), ‘Journalists’ and Educators’ Perspectives on News Media Reporting of Islam and Muslim Communities in Australia and New Zealand’, Journal of Media and Religion, 15:3, pp. 136-145
A Aly (2007), ‘Australian Muslim Responses to the Discourse on Terrorism in the Australian Popular Media’, Australian Journal of Social Issues, 42:1, pp. 27-40
K O’Donnell, R Davis & J Ewart (2017), ‘Non-Muslim Australians’ Knowledge of Islam: Identifying and Rectifying Knowledge Deficiencies’, Journal of Muslim Minority Affairs, 37:1, pp. 41-54
T Patil & G M Ennis (2016), ‘Silence as a Discourse in the Public Sphere: Media Representations of Australians Joining the Fight in Syria’, Social Alternatives, 35:1, pp.
D Iner (2017), ‘Islamophobia in Australia 2014-2016’, Charles Sturt University & Islamic Sciences and Research Academy, Sydney