From careful to careless reporting: The effect of COVID-19 on the representation of Islam and Muslims – Isobelle Clarke

In my current position, funded by the Aziz Foundation, in the Centre for Corpus Approaches to Social Sciences at Lancaster University, I am investigating the representation of Muslims and Islam in the UK press. Previous research has revealed the major press representations of Islam and Muslims between 1998 to 2009 and between 2010 to 2014 in order to assess how much has changed. One of my aims in this project is to develop and extend that research in order to assess if the major press representations of Muslims and Islam from January 2015 to December 2019 have changed or stayed the same since those time periods investigated. That research is very much under way and I am looking forward to writing up the results and sharing them with you. But (and I am sure it is the same for anyone else looking at the representations of different social phenomena or groups in the media), it already feels like so much has happened since December 2019 and I felt it was important to address this.

When I started the project I was quickly introduced to the Muslim Council of Britain’s (MCB) Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM) team. At our first meeting we sat around a table at their offices in White Chapel and spoke about our aims for the project. We immediately found similarities of approach and a shared purpose – to identify negative trends and promote positive practice in the media’s representation of Islam and Muslims. They asked me how I had become interested in this research and I remember mentioning how infuriated I was with Boris Johnson’s opinion piece in the Telegraph on Denmark’s banning of the burqa. In that piece he positioned Muslim women who choose to wear the burqa as being in a ‘catch 22’, whereby they can never be ‘free’ for as long as they wear a burqa because even if they choose to wear it, according to Boris, it is still a ‘dehumanising garment’. I drew parallels with rape victims who are interrogated and accused of ‘asking for it’ by the cross-examiner for wearing a dress that falls above the knee and/or high heels. We each shared our own frustrations and I suddenly realised that whilst I was aware of many problems in the reporting of Islam and Muslims, I was about to fall down the biggest rabbit hole, where I would never be able to look at a report on Muslims or Islam without seeing some form of bias or misrepresentation.

During this COVID-19 global pandemic, I have found myself reading and/or listening to the media far more than I have before. With an increased sensitivity to the media and being 6 months deep into this rabbit hole, I have noticed that reporting on Islam and Muslims has shifted.

In previous research investigating the representation of Islam and Muslims, it was found that much had stayed the same since 1998-2009 when reporting on Islam and Muslims between 2010-2014; however there were cases where things had changed and reporting had become more careful in trying to represent what had happened accurately and fairly. For instance, there was a growing acknowledgement that Islam has several different denominations. Between 1998 to 2009, these different denominations were rarely referred to or distinguished in the press. However, press reports concerning Islam and Muslims during 2010 to 2014 were referring to the different denominations more often than before. This was a positive improvement as it promoted religious literacy and better represented which groups of Muslims were involved in an event, rather than ascribing the event to all Muslims.

Despite these attempts at trying to include as much detail as possible to avoid misrepresentation, during the pandemic careful reporting appears to have been de-emphasised. A report’s accuracy now comes second to the spectacle of sensationalist reporting that fits a familiar narrative. In other words, the press have gone backwards.

Whilst I have noticed many instances of problematic reporting during the COVID-19 pandemic, there is one consistent narrative that ties many of them together. This narrative is affiliated to the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, especially the positive presentation of ‘Us’ and the negative presentation of ‘Them’. However, the reports extend this to present ‘Us’ as rule-followers and ‘Them’ as rule-breakers, where ‘Them’ are Muslims who have been scapegoated as a threat to ‘Us’ – the rest of society (i.e. Non-Muslims). In the rest of this blog, I will contextualise and describe a very specific example of this discourse and attempt to articulate the effects of such careless and reckless reporting.

The Islamic holy month of Ramadan happened during the COVID-19 pandemic from 23 April 2020 to 23 May 2020. During Ramadan, many Muslims fast between dawn and sunset as a way to show their devotion to their faith and come closer to God. There is also a special festival at the end of Ramadan called Eid al-Fitr, which means the festival of the breaking of the fast. Ramadan is a time for spiritual reflection, prayer, doing good deeds and spending time with family and friends. It is a time where Muslims make a special effort to connect with their communities and help those in need. Of course, during the pandemic with worldwide lockdown restrictions, Ramadan, and many other events, happened a little differently.

The PM of the UK Boris Johnson announced on 23rd March 2020 that people in the UK must stay at home and that they can only leave to:

  • shop for basic necessities,
  • exercise once per day
  • provide care to a vulnerable person
  • attend to a medical need or
  • travel to work but only where necessary and if it can’t be done from home.

In addition, Boris Johnson ordered places of worship, restaurants, cafes, pubs, clubs, and a number of retail stores to close. Large gatherings were banned and many other rules and restrictions were put in place to try and curb the spread of the virus. Such restrictions and lockdown measures meant that normal and traditional Ramadan festivities could not take place. Muslims couldn’t go to the mosque to pray, they couldn’t break their fast or celebrate Eid with their communities, family members or friends living in different households.

Before these restrictions even came into place and before Ramadan began, the Muslim Council of Britain had urged all mosques to close and they set out specific guidance for Ramadan during this unique time. This guidance provided details of how to adhere to the government’s lockdown restrictions and take part in this holy month of Ramadan. It also reassured Muslims that it was not necessary to go to the mosque to pray. Despite this very clear, explicit guidance that adhered to the government’s restrictions, the media were nevertheless focused on presenting Muslims as a threat to the rest of society because they either were going to break the rules during Ramadan, or may do so. For example, on the 12th April 2020 the Sunday Times had the headline:

“Experts fear spike in cases when families gather for Ramadan”

This headline is problematic for several reasons. First, it is factually incorrect. There was one ‘expert’, not more than one, as denoted by the plural Experts. In the context of this story, one might imagine that an expert would be someone who is an epidemiologist (one who studies the spread of infection) or mathematician (one who models and predicts the spread of infectious diseases). Yet the expert referred to in the Sunday Times is a consultant transplant nephrologist (someone who deals with kidney transplants). Given that the spread of COVID-19 cannot be cured or prevented by a kidney transplant, it can be argued that the expert selected was not appropriate as they were not an expert in this context.

Second, the headline makes assumptions, which misrepresent the truth. The clause “when families gather for Ramadan” presupposes that families will gather for Ramadan in ways that do not abide by the lockdown regulations (i.e. gathering with your family members from different households). This headline consequently problematised Muslims before Ramadan had even begun. It suggested that Muslims may be intending to break the rules wilfully for Ramadan. Muslims were therefore positioned as a threat to the rest of society as they were scapegoated for a potential spike in cases of COVID-19.

Following critique from the Centre for Media Monitoring, The Sunday Times corrected their headline:

“Expert fears a spike in UK coronavirus cases if communities gather for Ramadan”.

Although the expertise of the expert was not addressed, the change from the WH-clause to the conditional clause “if communities gather for Ramadan” makes this headline far less accusatory and presuppositional. Instead, it positions a spike in UK coronavirus cases as a potential consequence if people are to gather for Ramadan. Whilst the assumption that communities could gather for Ramadan is still present, in the new version it is not assumed that all Muslims will ignore the rules and gather for Ramadan.

Even though the Sunday Times made these corrections, it is important to note that the major problem with this report is that the scapegoating of Muslims in the UK press is unfair and disproportionate. Good Friday and Easter Sunday also fell during the tight lockdown restrictions. However, an article that implied that all Christian families and communities would break the rules in order to gather and celebrate the death and resurrection of Christ, or to take their families on Easter Egg hunts, did not appear in the Times or the Sunday Times. Christians make up more of the UK’s population than Muslims and so on numerical grounds alone they pose a greater risk of spreading the infection and causing a spike if they were to break the rules. Therefore, the focus on and scapegoating of Muslims is unfair.

Overall, the underlying narrative ‘Muslims as rule breakers’ is an articulation of the “Us versus Them” dichotomy, where Muslims are “Them” positioned in opposition to “Non-Muslims”. In the context of COVID-19, ‘Them’ are rule breakers, who are threats to the health of society, and so once again we find the UK press demonising Muslims and marking them as threats to society.

So many people and organisations are helped by Muslims in their charity work throughout the year and especially during Ramadan, when Muslims make a special effort to help those in need. This charity work has not stopped during the pandemic, but it has just taken different forms. For example, mosques in Liverpool have launched a helpline for the whole community to provide support during the pandemic. Additionally, volunteers from Newcastle Central mosque have launched a COVID-19 support group by delivering essential supplies, such as food and medicine to those in need and who are self-isolating. These emergency parcels are delivered for free and funded by the One Ummah charity. There are so many more examples of positive work being led by Muslims than there are negative, but these positive stories tend to be reported in the local as opposed to national press.

During these unprecedented times, it can be very easy to look for people or groups to blame, and when the press consistently demonise particular groups, those groups are even easier to accuse. This small blog is a call to go back to striving towards careful and accurate reporting. Let us change the narrative. #PositivelyMuslim

 
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