The Daily Mirror’s front page coverage of the New Zealand mosque massacre suspect sent “angry shockwaves” through the Muslim community, according to findings in a new report.
The Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Tackling Islamophobia also attributed the increased use of attention-grabbing “trigger” words in headlines to newsroom cuts across the UK media industry.
In its report, written by former BBC Scotland executive producer Uzma Mir and Peter Hopkins, professor of social geography at Newcastle University, the group offers new guidelines for reporting on Muslims and Islam.
The report was published last week following five focus group discussions held this year with young Muslims, non-Muslims, individuals and organisations, as well as senior print and broadcast journalists.
In one of the focus groups, a participant claimed a Daily Mirror headline from earlier this year describing the white suspect in the New Zealand mosque massacre as “angelic” had sent “angry shockwaves throughout the Muslim community”, according to the report.
The headline appeared on an early edition of the paper after Brenton Tarrant allegedly shot and killed 51 people at two mosques in Christchurch on 15 March. He denies all charges and awaits trial.
Although it was changed for a later edition “…inevitably some damage had been done” by the initial headline, the report said.
It said the Muslim community “saw this as an attempt to humanise the killer and ‘whitewash’ the incident”.
One of the focus group participants contrasted the Mirror’s portrayal of Tarrant with Westminster Bridge attacker Khaled Masood, whose troubled life was widely reported on and who was “portrayed as a lone wolf and without any links to international terror”.
The report blamed inaccurate use of terminology and exaggerations in headlines on widespread job cuts by news organisations as they struggle to replace dwindling print advertising revenues with profits from digital.
It said: “All groups – including our non-Muslim group – were divided as to whether this was done out of ignorance or because of a lack of knowledge, or whether this was done to get clicks.
“Media industry cutbacks are likely to have exacerbated this problem, with reductions in the number of sub-editors at some papers, and some news reporters now required to write their own headlines without training as sub-editors.”
The young persons’ focus group in particular said there were certain words that act as “trigger” words in headlines and introductory paragraphs to ensure newspapers are bought and online stories are clicked on, with the report giving “jihad” as an often misused word.
Hijab, niqab and burka are also used seemingly interchangeably “without much regard for accuracy”, participants said.
“Getting these terms right goes a long way to cementing trust between Muslim communities and journalists,” the report said.
The new guidelines note that headlines and introductions should be attention-grabbing to get readers and viewers to stay engaged, but said this should not come at the expense of accurate terminology.
Mir said: “The media has significant power in shaping how Islam and Muslims are represented and therefore the extent to which Muslims experience everyday racism and Islamophobia.
“In most polls and from our own work with focus groups, many Muslims felt that that there was an issue with Islamophobia and that the media played a major part in its rise. We hope these guidelines encourage further change and are a useful tool for those working in different roles and in diverse forms of media in Scotland.”
The report noted that progress is being made but that this could still be “quickly undermined by individual cases that create the impression of an inconsistency or an ‘us’ versus ‘them’ approach”.
Some focus group participants said the media in Scotland was “bad, but not as bad” as the media in England, which was seen as more hostile.
But some said Muslims appeared to simply be “not on the radar” of Scottish media, which therefore appears “quite dismissive” of them except when reporting terror attacks or the war on ISIS when Islam receives a “great deal” of attention.
The report said Muslim teenagers in particular saw media coverage about them as overwhelmingly negative, adding that young people urged journalists to be “more well-informed”.
In response, the guidelines encourage journalists and programme-makers to offer more regular coverage of the Muslim community and its positive contributions and successes.
They also recommend improving representation in Scottish print newsrooms, where Muslims are “largely invisible”, as “more diverse workplaces are better, more effective and fairer”.
Anas Sarwar MSP, chair of the CPG, said: “Rightly or wrongly, people blame politicians and the media for rising divisions in society.
“The CPG set out to address these issues, and I would like to thank all the journalists and editors for their positive engagement with this ground-breaking initiative.
“These guidelines can demonstrate leadership from Scotland to the rest of the UK and other parts of the world. I hope this becomes a regularly used tool and acts as a quick guide for the media.”
The guidelines have been endorsed by the National Union of Journalists, whose Scotland organiser John Toner described them as an “important step in making our media more representative, and our society more inclusive”.