When Agnes Cusack helped organise a weekend meeting between young Muslims and the media, it was a door opener for both sides.
Ask a bunch of smart, young Muslims if the media coverage of their community is based on fact, and they will answer with a resounding “No”.
Over a weekend in early May, 60 young Muslim men and women, selected on the basis of their interest in the media, met with 30 journalists at the Melbourne Town Hall to discuss to reporting of their community in the mainstream media.
The Media and Young Muslim Conference, organised by the Multicultural Media Exchange, included forums, small group discussions and practical workshops on interviewing and dealing with a public relations disaster.
Rohan Wenn, the national communications director of GetUp!, said the conference signalled a changing of the guard in the Muslim community. “The young people seemed to understand they have a lot more control over how they are portrayed. They also seemed keen to work on the skills they need to do this.”
The Multicultural Media Exchange works to build media skills in people from refugee and migrant communities, and set out to convince young Muslims to engage with the media. It’s a message that appears to have hit home. “I found out that journalists work with very demanding deadlines and the onus is really up to the Muslim community to seek them out in order to inject balance into the reporting,” was a typical response.
Negative media stereotyping of Muslims was a major issue for the young people. However, some acknowledged that stereotyping was a two-way-street. “The media aren’t a homogenous group you can stereotype, just like Muslims aren’t.”
The young people showed remarkable insight into how negative media coverage forced Muslims to confront difficult issues. While some said it had galvanised them into action to improve perceptions of their community, others felt they were part of a “tug of war” between old and new Muslim identities.
George Negus told those taking part: "Probably it is a young person's battle that you're fighting... on behalf of the rest of the community, because – rightly or wrongly – Australians will take more notice of somebody who was born here than somebody who wasn't."
Given the Australian community’s negative attitudes towards Muslims in the past few years, skills training was an important component of the weekend. Media trainer Lina Caneva found herself teaching interview techniques to young people from the Middle East, Europe, Asia and Africa. “I gained an understanding of the diversity within the Muslim community… this is a topic (in all its forms) that will only continue to grow. Education is the key,” she says.
Young Muslim women talked to journalists about racist attacks that had followed negative reporting of the Muslim community. Sarah Malik, a journalist with AAP who is also a Muslim said, “Continued dialogue will make journalists more aware and the Muslim community feel more empowered in dealing with media.”
Bill Birnbauer, from Monash University, joined with Melissa Fyfe, an investigative reporter with The Age, in explaining how newsrooms work. Denis Muller, from the Centre for Advanced Journalism at the University of Melbourne, spoke about media ethics. They helped change attitudes,
“I came to this conference thinking media is the cause of most of society’s problems; however this conference has opened my mind and given me more insight into the way media operates,” one attendee responded.
The Herald Sun’s John Masanauskas was a prime target for those angry about media representation of Muslims. He was part of a Sunday morning panel including journalist-author Cameron Forbes, former television journalist and academic Jill Singer, Nine Network’s Brett McLeod and Fairfax Community newspaper editor, David Bonnici.
Masanauskas explained that newspapers were obliged to report both sides of the story and that it was not his job to take sides in a debate. He also said: “This engagement with young Muslims will influence my story selection and how I portray Muslims. This type of event has a big role to play in fostering understanding between journalists and Muslims.”
Brett McLeod described the discussion as a “door opener”, saying, “It was valuable to hear the views… in particular, the sense of grievance over the way Muslims are represented in the community, as well as some of the understanding – and misunderstanding – of how journalists work in practice.”
The conference ended with the young Muslims promising to develop links with journalists and the reporters asking for similar sessions with other minority communities.
Larry Schwartz, a former Fairfax journalist and now freelance writer who tutors at Monash, summed it up this way: “It reminded me that we need to think outside the narrow sense of particular groups and at the attitudes and anxieties in the broader community that shape media response. It would be interesting to look at broadening the conversation to look at other minorities and the media.“
Agnes Cusack is a journalist and director of Multicultural Media Exchange in Melbourne; Twitter: @agnescusack. The conference was supported by the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Citizenship in Melbourne and the ACT.