Historically, Arab and Muslim culture has not been a major focus of the US news media, except when violence or war brought it into the headlines. But the events of September 11 put the entire Islamic world into sharper focus and many in the American-Muslim and American-Arab communities did not like what they saw. Stasia DeMarco reports on their efforts to present what they consider a more accurate picture.
America's Arab and Muslim communities have had a crash course in public relations over the past two years, as they tried to counter what seemed to be a near-constant stream of negative images from the 'war on terror.' Community leaders and activists made a concerted effort to reveal themselves, talking about their religion, their traditions and their ways of living to their neighbors and to reporters.
But Sobia Ahmab doesn't think it's working. The Muslim-American, 22, who majored in Media Studies in college, no longer watches TV news or reads the paper because she is so frustrated by the coverage. She believes the reporters and editors purposely try to make Muslim Americans look bad.
"I mean, there are so many cases at first I wouldn't believe them but I have seen it with my own eyes," she said. "They will be interviewing a person and they will cut off half of the thing. They will be saying something positive and it will end up looking totally like something negative. I mean, over and over again, it's like the media just want to brainwash people that when you see a Muslim person that's what should come to your mind and it just gets really frustrating."
The portrayal of Arabs and Muslims by American news outlets and in films is also frustrating for Jack Shaheen. The Arab-American media critic and retired college professor is the author of several books on the issue. He is saddened by what he sees as a dangerous stereotype presented by the U.S. news media and by politicians.
"Not only have we said that 1.2 billion Muslims equal the lunatic fringe, are the same as the 19 terrorists that attacked our country on 9-11," he said. "We are equating the acts of those 19 people with 1.2 billion people overseas," he said. "We also are attributing those acts, unfairly so, to 6 million American Muslims and 3 million American Arabs and there is a problem there."
There's a problem, he says, not just with the idea that all Muslims and Arabs are alike, but with the words and phrases used to describe the image, words like jihad.
"Traditionally, jihad has always been misused by every network and many reporters throughout the country not every but many," he explained. Jihad is the struggle within oneself. Everyone knows that. Everyone with a modicum of intelligence knows that. It is the struggle within oneself to be the best person that you can be. Now these extremist groups use it, they misuse it and then we misuse it thinking that it means something totally different."
Dismayed by what they regard as a misrepresentation of their religion, many Muslim academics, journalists, politicians and historians began working to craft a more accurate picture.
"September 11 was a watershed for us in that we realized many people in this country don't know about our faith and they are scared and that includes journalists," said Raeed Tayeh. He added that it is the responsibility of American Muslims to make sure the news media get the true information about Islam. As public affairs director for the Muslim American Society, he leads workshops to educate journalists.
"If I tell a journalist, if I explain to them the tenets of Islam from A-Z and I explain these terms then now the burden is on that journalist," he said. "The journalist can either heed the guidance that I sort of gave them in terms of these semantic footnotes or they can continue to use the terms that they are comfortable or used to."
On this topic, as perhaps no other, words are a minefield. Jeffrey Dvorkin knows that well. As ombudsman for National Public Radio in Washington, DC, it's his job to respond to criticism about his network's news coverage, and it's been hard to separate reporting about the war on terror from news coming out of the Middle East. According to Mr. Dvorkin, NPR has offended both sides. In 2000, it was lambasted for being Pro-Israeli and now there is intense pressure from groups that feel NPR's coverage is pro-Palestinian.
"This is an enormously complicated story that requires a lot of context and a lot of subtly," he said. "The problem is that when it comes to the Middle East, language has been not only been politicized but weaponized. That means that you can't use certain terms. If you use certain terms you end up appearing to be on one side or the other. The idea of a neutral description of events is almost impossible."
For Jeffrey Dvorkin, the only way Americans can begin to understand these complex issues is to go beyond journalism. He says learning at least the basics of Middle East history is the best way to develop a context for the news.
"I think people have to realize that a full service news operation is not the same as the Department of History at the University of Pennsylvania," he said. "And so they confuse what their expectations are from an all news radio, a CNN, even from NPR. We are going to be able to provide a lot of information. Are we going to be definitive in every case? No. And I think that people have an obligation and a personal responsibility that if they want more information they are going to have to find it in other places. That there is actually a limit to what journalism can or should be expected to do."
For his part, Raeed Tayeh is hopeful that Americans - Muslims and non-Muslims - will find ways to communicate more clearly with one another, and that this better understanding will be reflected in the media coverage of Arab and Muslim communities.
"Well you know I think journalists, responsible journalists are patient people," he pointed out. "You seek out the information and that fosters understanding and when you understand people and you understand an issue then you are more informed and you'll do more justice to the issue when you speak about it."
While all sides continue a passionate debate over the way American Muslims and Arabs are portrayed, everyone involved in that debate agrees that the public must be wary of stereotypes in the news.