If there’s one thing we know about the 1.8 billion Muslims in the world, it’s that they pray.
You’ve seen the photos. The lines of men — somehow it’s always men – bowing down in perfect unison inside mosques. You especially see those photos in stories about the holiday Eid al-Fitr, which was a week ago and commemorated the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
It’s become a predictable frame of the news media’s coverage of Islam. I have thought a lot about this frame for two reasons. One, I’m Muslim. Two, I’m a journalist (an editor who was admittedly involved in one too many photo assignments of Eid prayer events).
You might be asking, hey, so what’s wrong with getting photos of Muslims praying? Generally nothing, but if that’s all people see year after year in newspapers, online or on television, then it perpetuates an idea that this singular act of praying is all that matters to Muslims. And before you know it, we’re down the slippery slope of Muslims as fervent, as fundamentalists, dare I say radical. The other worry is that people aren’t seeing Muslims for the totality of who they are – only how they are different.
I took off from work last Friday for Eid and went to the River Oaks Islamic Center for the special Eid prayers at 8 a.m. You know what I did next? I enjoyed some breakfast tacos on the porch of a neighborhood restaurant and planted some grass in the afternoon to patch up my ailing lawn. When you’re fasting for Ramadan you don’t eat or drink anything from sunrise to sunset – so working outside during the day is difficult without drinking water. That was my way to celebrate the day, by just being a little normal.
Oh, and I attended a cool Eid party over the weekend where I didn’t see much praying going on but the host family did rent a petting zoo for the kids. There were even pigs!
How the media covers Muslims is not the only thing nagging me recently. I’ve been reading over responses to another question in our ongoing Houston Landing survey. A few weeks ago, I wrote about the survey question centered on what keeps you up at night.
Today’s column tackles this question: How do you feel you or your community is represented in the media, if at all? What do people get wrong about your community?
Nearly 350 people addressed the question. Their thoughtful and passionate responses varied from faulty framing around suburban coverage to treating various groups of people as monoliths. Many respondents also talked about how the media focuses on sensationalism over substance, unfairly paints all white people as racist and reports too much about crime. Then there were the folks who expressed angst that their communities were more than adequately represented at the expense of others.
Focusing on what’s right
“‘If it bleeds, it leads’ is the motto of most print and TV media.”
That comment from one survey respondent was mirrored by many others. People described the news as too scary, negative or dramatic. They said the news media only covered sensational events.
The responses showed crime reporting in particular fatigued many Houstonians, inducing anxiety and false perceptions.
“I think sensationalism and obsession with crime stories makes people think our community is much more dangerous than it actually is,” a survey respondent wrote. “You’re more likely to be struck by a meteor than to be assaulted in downtown, but you’d never know that by people’s perception of safety. And the media feeds that misperception.”
People did offer solutions in their comments. Surely, one person suggested, there must be some positive events happening in America’s fourth-largest city.
“There is a tendency to focus on what’s wrong in the community,” someone wrote. “I’d like more news coverage that focused on what’s right.”
People said more investigative reporting of serious public issues would help address this tilt toward stories lacking depth.
At the Houston Landing, we are prioritizing investigative and watchdog reporting. It’s an expectation we have of all our reporters covering a variety of beats – from city hall to the environment to transportation to our news columns. We will also soon hire a reporter whose job is writing about solutions to problems plaguing our various forms of government.
My previous column on the Landing’s reader survey showed that many people wanted more public safety reporting. Our staff will have to carefully balance this line between reporting that merely ticks off incidents of crime that are not of widespread interest versus substantive reporting on public safety that truly matters to the community.
Not everyone is rich
The most passionate responses in the survey revolved around how the media frames stories about our neighborhoods and cities. It’s something journalists should talk about, understand and confront. Just listen to this array of people who clearly love their communities but are concerned about how they are presented in the media:
“I don’t see much about Pasadena, La Porte, or Deer Park except the big events like plant explosions.”
“I live in The Woodlands, and there is a general impression that everyone is rich. There are many people in need.”
“East End is represented as a new hipster outpost when it’s a community with history, social connections and vast diversity all worth preserving.”
“I see a lot about a few areas such as Sugar Land and The Woodlands, but very little about most suburban areas such as my residence, Pearland.”
“Clear Lake is more racially diverse than many people realize. It’s also much more than NASA and its contractors.”
“That people in the burbs are ultra right-wing conservatives.”
“I think Kingwood is thought of as a place of rich people. Actually, we have a broad cross-section of people living in Kingwood. I’m in the middle and love my middle-class neighborhood!”
“Meyerland. Only in the news for flooding or Judaism. Lots of new construction and commercial development that’s not covered.”
“Galveston is portrayed as a tourist destination, but it is also home for many people.”
“East Harris County is generally ignored by the Houston media.”
“I’m in the Heights. We are way over-represented in the Houston media. I would love to hear about life in Spring Branch, Alief, Near Northside, the wards and especially all the pockets of Houston I’ve never heard of.”
Reporters, editors and producers don’t set out every day to provide false or unfair accounts of the neighborhoods they serve. It happens for a variety of reasons.
Sometimes they’re relying too much on the same well of sources for story ideas. Or they lean into press releases too often from agencies and organizations that already draw enough coverage. Or they are not spending enough time outside their comfort zone and their own neighborhood. There’s a running joke in newsrooms about the city editor who hits a pothole on the morning drive to the office. Then the editor assigns a reporter to do a story about why the city is not fixing its potholes!
If editors would take a different route to the office through a different neighborhood and actually step out of the car to talk to people, they might stumble upon a story that is more urgent, interesting and original.
Rarely told stories
The framing of neighborhoods wasn’t the only concern raised in the responses. Dozens of people were also worried about how the media contributes to the inaccurate framing of large groups of people.
Let’s take millennials for example. No, they are not lazy, one respondent wrote
Older white men? No, they are not all rabid Trumpers, another person said.
Republicans? Here’s one survey taker’s thoughts: “Media right now is so left-leaning that coverage of any Republican doing anything is slanted to ‘look at this hateful thing we hate’ instead of seeking to understand.”
People with disabilities? “The lived experiences of Houstonians with disabilities are often used as inspiration porn for nondisabled audiences. There is rare to no coverage of Houstonians with disabilities with multiple intersectional identities and our contributions to the community at large.”
Black residents? “The Black community is always in the news for crime, but the positive things that the
community does is almost never reported on. The news never talks about the organizations that are trying to improve the community or the economic contributions that help build Houston.”
Asian, Asian American, or Pacific Islanders? “People oftentimes view AAPI communities as a monolith – one language that all looks a certain way. We are so, so diverse – politically, racially, ethnically, in gender, in religion, in age, in thought.”
Hispanic residents? “The Latinx community is a large part of Houston, but the stories of our community are rarely told. The Latinx community is also segmented and diverse. There are people who have been in Houston for generations and some who only got here recently. Politically, there is a lot of diversity. These things matter to the larger landscape of our city.”
It’s just not about groups of people being covered in a way that is harmfully wrong. What about when they are not covered at all? Yes, Houston is a wonderfully diverse place, but in the suburbs, one person wrote, minority voices struggle to be heard.
It was striking to see how many people recognized that their own space and identity were covered just fine.
“I’m a cisgendered heterosexual white woman living in The Woodlands. If anything, people like me are over-represented in the media. Tell stories about people who are NOT like me: Houston is many things, and there are lots more stories to tell.”
A key part of the Landing’s mission is to write about underserved communities. If you have story ideas you want to suggest, please reach out to us here.
We also want to make sure we are upholding the highest standards of journalism. Two of those critical guardrails are accuracy and fairness. If we are telling your story or the story of your community in a way that is wholly incomplete or harmful, please tell us.
We won’t always get it right. We’re new and working hard to find our way. But we want to earn your trust. The only way we can do that is if we are listening to you.