Understanding Media Psychology Can Help Break Down Stereotypes

By JuliAnne Rose

POUGHKEEPSIE, NY – MediaLab’s Islamophobia documentary team interviewed an expert psychologist at Vassar College, Dr. Dara Greenwood, Ph.D., on the human capacity to perceive and respond to media and how humor can be used both as a vehicle and solution for prejudice on Monday.

Media, news or entertainment, is an industry that depends on viewership. Humans have a natural mechanism to perceive media in all forms, and this is a very complex and diverse process, said Greenwood. Because of this, many stereotypes abound in the media to enable the audience to make that immediate, recognizable connection to the character.

This is why Arabs and Muslims are often portrayed as evil, terrorists, or outsiders in many TV shows and movies in American entertainment media.

The problem is that this norm presented in the media becomes more damaging when there isn’t a counter-force in the audience’s real lives to challenge these stereotypes, said Greenwood. In fact, in some cases, it can further validate their misconceptions.

“People have self-serving needs to be correct in their beliefs,” said Greenwood

To help mitigate the harmful effects media can have on prejudice, humor can serve as a powerful tool to help break down those barriers. It can create a common ground to make personal connections.

However, humor can also serve as a vehicle for prejudice as jokes are often indirect expressions of personally held attitudes.

“Because of the ambiguous nature of jokes, it puts anybody who disagrees with the joke at a disadvantage,” said Greenwood.

Speaking up is key to countering these negative expressions. There is a lot of power in saying ‘I don’t think that’s funny,’ said Greenwood.


According to the Clarion Fund, Prejudice is Not Just Black and White

By Leah Traxel

NEW YORK CITY – Established with the mission to oppose radical Islam, the Clarion Fund says they hope to give voice to mainstream Muslims in America.

The Clarion Fund entered into the public eye with their controversial documentaries, The Third Jihad and Obsession, meant to expose the alleged radical Islamist agenda. Critics charge the films as giving a very biased, one-sided portrayal of Muslims and the Islamic faith as extremist and anti-Western.

However, according to Ryan Mauro, National Analyst for the Fund’s website,, this is unfounded.

“The 3rd Jihad’s goal was to enlighten Americans and awaken them into action about how radical Islam is creeping into the Western world,” said Mauro.

Mauro stressed that it is not the Islamic faith that is the threat to American national security, but radical Islamists who mesh the faith with political law.

The Fund’s most recent documentary, The Third Jihad, claims that the majority of Islamic leadership in America is radical with an orchestrated plan to overthrow the American government to establish fundamental Islamic law in the nation.

It is when Islam becomes political that it threatens American ideals of civil rights and liberties.

“Extremists believe that [shari’a law] is a code for governance and that any government that does do that, does not honor God, is a threat to Islam,” said Mauro. “In the United States, our primary concern is having judges decide cases based on shari’a law when one party does not favor that.”

Mauro claimed there was a case in the US where shari’a law was used to make the ruling. A woman in New Jersey accused her husband of repeatedly raping her. Yet, the judge ruled that under shari’a law it is the husbandly duty to sleep with his wife and so no crime was committed, said Mauro.

Mauro went further to claim that recent polls showed how much of the American Muslim population sympathizes with Al-Qaeda’s efforts, therefore making them a threat to the expansion of radical Islam.

The goal of the Clarion Fund is to expose the threat of radical political Islam, said Mauro.

For the documentary team, this interview was certainly an eye-opening experience. Beginning the project, we assumed there were two sides to the story. With this interview, we were introduced to one of many of the grey areas surrounding this social problem.


The Albanian Model for Religious Tolerance

By Katie Baumann

WASHINGTON, DC – The MediaLab documentary team sat down with Avni Mustafaj, Executive Director of the National Albanian American Council (NAAC), for a conversation of international proportions on Friday.

NAAC is a non-profit organization that pledges its commitment to Albanians worldwide and the promotion of peace and economic development in the Balkans.

In the 1990s, the Balkans experienced tragic conflict as Yugosalvia divided and Bosnia erupted in genocide.

“The way it was positioned in the media was you had the Croats, the Serbs, and the Bosnian Muslims,” said Mustafaj. “Why the Bosnian Muslims, why not just Bosnians.”

While this conflict was not necessarily religiously motivated, the Bosnian rebel forces were portrayed as the Bosnian Muslims, supporting anti-Muslim sentiments worldwide.

“Particularly the Serbs, tried to portray the Bosnians as extremist Muslims, certainly they are not,” said Mustafaj. “The idea was to say, ‘hey you know what, they are not like us.’”

Albania is a country in the Balkans that has experienced horrific conflict, but is historically a region of tolerance. Mustafaj explained how Jews, Muslims, and Christians coexist peacefully in Albania, sharing their traditions. It is this tolerance that has fueled a successful reconciliation process in the country.

“Albanians at the core believe more in the culture than in a religion,” said Mustafaj.

Using Albania as a model, Mustafaj suggests that the key strategy in combating Islamophobia in America is knowledge.

Many argue that human’s anxiety of the unknown fuels most social fears today. Mustafaj believes that Americans need to seek a better understanding of Islam to help alleviate the anxiety of the faith and its followers.

“We’ve seen time and time again in history that when there is light, when there is knowledge there’s understanding and there’s acceptance,” said Mustafaj. “I think this is now the process we are going through in this country.”

It is this dedication to understanding and tolerance that has been highly instrumental in the continuation of peace in Albania and could work in America too, said Mustafaj.


American Student in Istanbul Becomes Doubtful of Islam

By Sabina Jafarova Vagifgizi

One American student studying aboard in Istanbul said she had no cause of concern with Islam until her experiences in Turkey. While at first she was willing to participate in speaking out, her parents warned against it and she withdrew her statement.

“I actually have a very interesting experience,” said the American student. “When I was in America I did not have any prejudices or problems with Islam – when I came to Turkey, I experienced a few things that have caused me to be pretty doubtful and unhappy with Islam.”

Most pointedly was the prejudice she experienced from Alevites she encountered in the area, who do not commonly give favor to Americans. Alevites are a large ethno-religious minority population of Shiite Muslims in Turkey who advocate for the secular and populist ideals set forth by Ataturk Kemal in the early 20th Century.

She was quick to acknowledge that it was a small group that has provided such a negative impression. While other Americans may hold grudges based on these types of experiences, it must be emphasized that this viewpoint couldn’t apply to the entire population of Turkey or Muslims for that matter, the student said.

Instead, these run-ins with fundamentalist Alevites have shifted her previously unbiased opinion of Islam to a strong anti-fundamentalist Muslims attitude. Fundamentalism gives no cause for respect, as it is irrational and out-dated, the student said.

Fundamentalists are a small minority in the worldwide Muslim population and mainstream Islam advocates for peace and tolerance.

“It is a strong religion, and definitely deserves appreciation,” said the American student.

She had agreed to interview to share her experiences and her newfound viewpoint on Islam. When her parents urged her to reconsider because of the sensitive nature of the topic, she withdrew from speaking on the record in front of a camera. Her name will remain anonymous.


A Blonde and Two Brunettes Walk Into The White House…

By JuliAnne Rose

WASHINGTON, DC – While at McClatchy Company on Thursday, just as a long shot, we thought “hey, why don’t we see if we can get press passes for an event around DC while we’re here.” We never expected that we would be able to get into the White House, let alone be 20 feet away from President Obama while he led a press briefing.

When we were told they would be able to get us clearance into the White House pressroom, we were excited enough. Leah had heard rumors that President Obama had returned from his trip to Las Vegas the night before our scheduled trip to the pressroom. Crossing our fingers that maybe he’d call a press briefing, we immediately went out shopping for professional outfits worthy of the White House.

On Friday morning, we made our way to the press entrance and watched as journalist after journalist was let through the gate. They gave us our own press badges and we waited anxiously for our escort to arrive to lead us into the room. This was when we found out that yes, the President himself would be giving the press briefing.

When we got into the surprisingly small room, it was buzzing with excited journalists. Even though they are here every week, they rarely get to see the President either. Scribbling on their notepads, you could see the excitement and nervousness as they hoped they were chosen to personally ask the President a question.

Standing off to the side, we had a clear view of the podium with the presidential seal, the White House emblem, and the American flag as the backdrop. We needed to keep reassuring ourselves we were really there.

I’m sure you’re all wondering…but yes, we were those young, excited girls in the back, iPhones and cameras out taking pictures of ourselves with our press badges. With our giddy smiles and wide eyes, we stuck out like sore thumbs.

When President Obama walked in the room, it was like everyone took one big deep breath. But it was only for a second, and then the sound of journalists vigorously typing and scribbling in their notepads filled the air.

It was remarkable, the power the President commanded in the room.

Maybe movies warped my idea of the media, but I always thought it was a free for all for questioning at a press briefing. But, three journalists were chosen beforehand and called on by President Obama to ask one question each. The first two questions were tailored to the briefing on the European economic crisis, but the third was most notable.

I’ve never really seen the President angry, but when one journalist asked about the leak in national security, his easy demeanor quickly changed. His faced was stern as he pointedly responded to the allegations of the government’s involvement. This brought the press briefing to a close.

As the pressroom began to clear, Leslie Clark, reporter for the McClatchy Company who got us the opportunity, snagged us for a more intimate tour of the press area of the West Wing. We were given the opportunity to explore the catacombs underneath the room where all the journalists from the major news organizations produce their work.

Leslie then invited us onto the podium, the same one where the President just gave his speech. We asked a man standing near to take the photo of us. The man happened to be Rodney Batten, a reporter for NBC. He asked us if we had seen the poolroom yet.

When we gave him puzzled looks, he excitedly led us down some back steps to a pool underneath the pressroom where FDR did his physical therapy. All over the walls by the staircase were hundreds of signatures, ranging from Presidents, to First Ladies, to journalists. We even got to sign our own names on those walls, to be forever written in the White House!

The surreal experience lasted only 3 hours, and we were quickly back to work on the film, but the whirlwind left us with a rush of adrenaline and giddiness that we will not soon forget.


If It Bleeds, It Leads: McClatchy Reporters Tell All

By Leah Traxel

WASHINGTON, DC – To most, the building on 17th street is unremarkable, but to any student of journalism, the McClatchy Co. Washington Bureau is an icon.  The third largest print news organization houses its foreign correspondents and political writers in this building, with reporters at the Pentagon, White House, and Capitol, as well as all over the world.

On the inside, the building looks like any other office, but while most companies are setting daily goals, McClatchy is deciding what you’ll read in tomorrow’s newspaper.

The Islamophobia team went to McClatchy on the recommendation of Karen Peterson at The News Tribune on Thursday. Through the inquiries of the editor at the Washington Bureau, Jim Asher, we connected with four correspondents who had first-hand experience in the Middle East and in political new media.

Jonathan Landay, former foreign correspondent from the Balkans, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq, spoke to the presence of religious conflict and extremism.  He said that the media wasn’t doing the best job of covering these conflicts, but that three factors needed to be explored: first, media organizations have been hit by the economic crisis and so have downsized also, so there are less reporters to cover all the aspects of the conflicts; second: “If it bleeds, it leads,” meaning that the media only follow extremist movements because they generally cause the only incidences that garner significant attention; and third, that American Muslims must mobilize into counter-terrorist movements to provide the media with something peaceful to cover.

We also spoke to Hannah Alem, an Arab-American foreign correspondent who recently returned from the Middle East.  As a Muslim, she said it’s hard to watch the American media distort the public’s view of Islam as violent and foreign, especially when her brothers joined the Marines.  She urged people on the ground in America to do something to combat those stereotypes, especially journalists.

“When you’re doing a piece about the state fair, maybe you include an Arab-sounding name instead of the same ones every time,” said the journalist.

Matthew Scofield, currently a correspondent to the Pentagon, was formerly a European correspondent who studied anti-religious movements for many years.  He was able to explain the idea that Islamophobia is an even larger phenomenon in Europe than in America.  He referenced an experience in a town in France when a candidate for political office walked through the streets of a small town with his supporters and pointed out a Muslim shop, saying: “They don’t eat pork or drink wine, how can they be French?”

After receiving a lot of information and a catered lunch, we hit the road to our next interview.


Afghani Journalist Challenges the American Concept of Freedom

By Leah Traxel

WASHINGTON, DC – After hearing from American scholars and Muslims, the Islamophobia team was able to speak with an Afghani refugee working as a journalist in the US.  Syed Rahim, a freelancer who resides in Washington DC, believes that the American media have not portrayed the American-Islamic relationship accurately, and that American sentiments toward the Middle East and Islam specifically makes it hard for American Muslims to feel free and safe.

“America claims to be free, but when you come here, you find it is different.”

Rahim specifically recalled when he told his young nephew in Afghanistan that he was now living in America, his nephew immediately became terrified for his uncles life, exclaiming, “I hope you don’t die!”

Rahim explained that media representation of Americans makes them seem violent and untrustworthy.

Rahim also spoke about friends from Afghanistan that lied about their nationality, claiming that they come from Greece or Italy for their own safety, and never mentioning religion.  These techniques were used to avoid being verbally and even physically attacked, both events that Rahim personally witnessed and experienced.


Who Wouldn’t Love Tuna Salad and a Quran?

By JuliAnne Rose

WASHINGTON, DC – Situated just a few blocks from the nation’s capitol building, Council for American-Islamic Relation’s headquarters is a small office in an adapted residential house, but the difference they can make stretches across the nation.

MediaLab’s documentary team interviewed the Legislative Director, Corey Saylor, and the National Communication Director, Ibrahim Hooper, of CAIR on Tuesday. CAIR is the leading group challenging intolerance and bigotry directed at American-Muslims to promote social justice in the greater public.

The interviewers found it astonishing to hear the figures put forth from Hooper that nearly one-third of Americans hold active hostility to Islam and Muslims, but what had been growing over the past ten years is an actual Islamophobia Industry within our nation.

“While it’s a minority, it is a significant minority,” said Hooper.

Saylor told the group there is money in Islamophobia and its promotion as a widespread sentiment. He argued that leading figures speaking out against Islam are well funded and highly publicized. Saylor and Hooper both point to Pamela Gellar, an American blogger, Robert Spencer, director of Jihad Watch, and Frank Gaffney, President of Center for Security Policy, as just a fraction of these prominent spokespeople.

“There is a movement that has come up,” said Saylor. “It’s very small, but it’s actually unfortunately fairly influential of people who profit politically and financially from bashing on Islam”

It’s assumed that media may play an important role in influencing the public’s negative perception of Islam, Hooper disagrees.

“The majority of [journalists] are just trying to do the best they can with the information available,” said Hooper. He added only a small minority are agenda-driven in promoting intolerance and bigotry of Islam and Muslims.

CAIR primary work is with local and national media in an effort to ensure an unbiased portrayal of Islam and Muslims is presented to the American public.  This organization’s agenda focuses on a move away from the harmful affects of stereotyping and discrimination.

Saylor said he knows all too well the fear and disgust that can accompany hate-fueled discrimination.

“I’m feeling this anger at the people who attacked us,” said Saylor.  “And I’m dealing with the anger from people who feel attacked at the same time.

Sitting at home with his new baby, Saylor was shocked and horrified to turn on the TV on the morning of 9/11 and witness the Twin Towers go down with the rest of the nation.

He couldn’t believe the way in which his religion was being twisted by these terrorists.

As CAIR fell under massive bombardment in the weeks following the tragedy, Saylor said he worked tirelessly to mitigate the immediate negative backlash on Islam and Muslims throughout the nation.

But Saylor was not allowed the courtesy of mourning the losses with the rest of the nation. Personal attacks were launched on him and his family for the mere fact that he was a Muslim.

Saylor opened his email to find a disturbing note, threatening to rape his infant child and his wife.

The representatives from CAIR made it clear that the hatred, discrimination and violent psychological and physical attacks on Muslims have not ended. The MediaLab team heard of the efforts of CAIR to deal with case after case of religious discrimination, defamation, and hate crimes today. They told the MediaLab team about their hopes to bring empower and encourage civic engagement for Muslims here in the U.S. and abroad.

Before leaving the CAIR offices, they made sure we each had our own Quran and a tuna salad for the road.


Islamophobia No Longer Resides on the Fringe

By Leah Traxel

WASHINGTON D.C.–After walking around the birthplace of American
democracy, MediaLab’s documentary team got a new kind of history lesson from John Feffer, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus at the Institute for Policy Studies.

Author of the book Crusade 2.0, Feffer drew connections between the current sentiment toward Muslims in America and the crusades during the 11th century, anti-Semitism during World War II, and the Civil Rights movement.

One of Feffer’s arguments suggests that the media plays a huge role in sensationalizing Islam in America and abroad.

Feffer cites the Park 51 debate during the summer of 2010 in particular as a previously boring situation that was made sensational by anti-Muslim activists choosing to attack a benign project—the media flocked to the scene of the “conflict” and created a controversy where there should not have been one.

Feffer also suggested ways to mitigate such effects through education and activism. He referenced The Cosby Show as an example in which Civil Rights activists changed public perception to the point that they were willing to accept the Cosby family into their homes and hearts.

Feffer argues that while America may need to do something like that for Muslims through entertainment media, it’s also the burden of Muslim-Americans and human rights activists to stand up for themselves and their liberties.


Media Can Be Used to Mitigate Islamophobia

By Katie Baumann

WASHINGTON D.C.—Despite the anti-Islamic sentiment, there is hope for Muslims in America, according to George Papagiannis, head of external relations and information at United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Papagiannis, who has almost 20 years experience in journalism and media development, shared his expertise with MediaLab’s documentary team Monday in Washington D.C.

The New York City native worked at Internews when 9/11 occurred, and said that some of his experiences in the aftermath helped shape his outlook on Islamaphobia in America.

In particular, he recalled the words of one Muslim individual, who was part of a group of Indonesian journalists attending a series of classes just two weeks after the tragedy in Bowling Green, Kentucky.

After coming back from prayer on a Friday afternoon, the individual said that immediately after 9/11, the Imam was approached by community members who explained that the situation could get ugly for Muslims in the weeks ahead, but that the mosque was their neighbor, and that they take care of their neighbors.

Papagiannis said that he felt chills when he heard the heartwarming story, and that it encouraged him, despite the prevalence anti-Islamic sentiment he saw elsewhere around the country.
Through experiences, such as this, and the various positions he’s held over the years, Papagiannis has a unique ability to evaluate the media and their power to shape public perception.

Papagiannis explained that while the media exacerbate certain issues, they also have the potential to mitigate problems, such as Islamophobia.


One response to “Blog

  1. Pingback: A Conversation with Mr. Papagiannis | Islamophobia

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s