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This is one of a series of articles and videos on the June 2017 conference “Is no local news bad news? Local journalism and its future” hosted by the Ryerson Journalism Research Centre. Watch the full conference panel below. To read more about the conference and local news, visit:

Staff reporter

If you want to learn about the Muslim community, don’t read the news, says the associate editor of The Islamic Monthly.

Steven Zhou, who converted to Islam six years ago, said writing about a community takes time and resources.

As a result, too many publications produce “surface-level” stories fulfilling their role as being part of the public record “because the truth needs to be told.” But as a freelancer for publications including CBC News Online, Zhou said he’s sympathetic.

“It’s easier to make money pounding out a thousand words in your underwear than it is to go on a bus and spend your money and cover something,” he said.

He was joined on the panel Know Thy Neighbour: Local News as a Tool for Overcoming Difference by Muslim Link coordinator Chelby Marie Daigle, BuzzFeed’s Ishmael Daro, and producer, writer and broadcaster Naheed Mustafa at a conference on the future of local news hosted by the Ryerson School of Journalism.

The Muslim community is not as homogenous as mainstream media portrays, they said.

“I can tell you, in almost a decade of interaction with people in the community, I’m probably more confused than when I started,” Zhou said. “How does one person cover a million people?”

The answer to such a question is more critical than ever, said panel moderator Amira Elghawaby of the National Council of Canadian Muslims.

“I usually like to tell a lot of jokes but, again, we’re having another terrorist attack in London,” she said at the beginning of the discussion.

Elghawaby played a clip, recorded the night before by a Muslim friend while out for a walk with her 11-year-old son in in Kanata, Ontario. A male voice yelled hateful racial slurs.

“He went on to say they should all be killed,” Elghawaby said. “This is what we’re talking about, knowing thy neighbour, and it’s not just a cute title of a panel.”

Getting to know the Muslim community, a community subject to an increasing number of hate crimes, which Elghawaby charts on an online map, means building connections, said Mustafa, whose work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Walrus and numerous other publications.

Of workplaces such as CBC, where colleagues assumed certain communities trusted her with their stories because of her ethnicity, Mustafa said, ”I don’t actually have access to that community. I built access to that community.”

Building access could mean contacting at least a dozen people and attending events such as a women’s gathering in Thorncliffe Park in Toronto, as Mustafa did for a CBC documentary about what it meant to be Canadian. It could also mean being aware that journalists are in a position of power.

“If you have people in the community who are still relying on us to filter their stories,” she said, “are we really engaging in a meaningful way or are we basically forcing people to help us tell the story we’re interested in telling?”

At Muslim Link, Daigle is focused on telling the stories her community wants to tell, she said. Daigle, who says she has no background in journalism, “has learned that “people want to read about people they might actually know, or people who look like them, or people they might run into.”

“I think local news is so important for community building,” she said. “It’s how you get to know your neighbours.”

Muslim Link tells stories that explore the spectrum of a multi-dimensional community that isn’t often reflected in mainstream media, said Daigle, from Eritrean Canadians launching a charity to support refugees in Sudan to an Ottawa bus driver standing up to Islamophobia.

“The interesting thing about telling the stories of Muslims in Canada is that it’s as interesting for Muslims as it is for non-Muslims because our community is so diverse.”

Ishmael Daro, social news editor at BuzzFeed Canada who covers Islamophobia as a sub-beat, said he uses stories to help bust stereotypes. One method of doing this is to tell positive stories about the Muslim community in response to hate incidents, he said. For example, Daro countered a story about anti-Syrian-refugee graffiti at a Calgary light rail transit (LRT) station with one about a group of young Muslims armed with messages of love greeting commuters the next day.

Daro also wrote about a Palestinian donair shop owner who gave free food to the hungry. The business owner did so because it was part of his culture, Daro said, and this became a central aspect of his article.

These are the types of stories that can teach people about his culture from a Muslim perspective, he said.

Such feel-good stories aren’t going to make the front page of the Globe and Mail, he said, “but those are the stories that really connect with people. Those are the stories that I get mail for.”

Staff Reporters


Stephen Meurice, Stephen Trumper and Andrea Houston at an RJRC panel in October. (Ania Bessonov)

The Canadian Press (CP) is discussing how to update its stylebook to reflect changing language surrounding LGBTQ, Indigenous and disabled communities, CP’s editor-in-chief said during a Ryerson Journalism Research Centre panel earlier this month.

But the national news agency must keep its clients and readers in mind when contemplating such changes, said editor-in-chief Stephen Meurice.

“Clarity of language is key,” Meurice told about 90 journalism students and members of the public at the panel. “You want people to read your whole story and you want them to understand what’s going on … We do have to think about the small clients who are in areas that might be more conservative.”

Panel members discussed current language issues in news writing and reporting, including the singular use of “they” as a gender-neutral pronoun. Along with Meurice, the panel featured former Toronto Life editor and Ryerson School of Journalism instructor Stephen Trumper and Andrea Houston, a freelance journalist who teaches a course at the school on queer media. A video-slideshow prepared by journalism professor Joyce Smith discussed language issues that arise in the coverage of religion and security.

The CP wire service is purchased by news organization across the country, with clients that range from large metropolitan daily newspapers to smaller rural publications. It is also the publisher and editor of the Canadian Press Stylebook, a guide to journalistic conventions in Canada that is used by many news outlets and taught to journalism students.

A new edition of the style guide is expected next year, and Meurice said decisions will need to be made about what to say in the book on issues such as gender-neutral pronouns or the word “cisgender” (a term that describes people who are not transgender). While the stylebook does include an entry on the term “transgender,” it does not include an entry on the use of the singular “they.”

The singular use of “they” as a gender-neutral, third person pronoun is often used as a more inclusive pronoun, as it avoids assigning a gender to a person who does not identify as exclusively a woman or a man. Some people choose other gender-neutral pronouns, such as “xe” and “ze,” but the singular use of “they” is often the most popular.

Houston said that it is the responsibility of journalists to represent their sources respectfully.

“When you are interviewing a source and they ask for a gender-neutral pronoun, obviously don’t challenge them on this,” she said. “It’s not up to you, as a journalist, to have this debate – to debate someone’s identity. It’s up to you to respect them and represent them with compassion and honesty, as they want to be represented.”

Meurice, who said CP may well incorporate the use of “they” as standard practice in the styleguide, said the wire service does take the wishes of sources into account: “We would never intentionally use the pronoun ‘he’ or ‘she’ if someone had specifically asked us not to,” he said of CP’s policy.

Journalists, however, do not always receive support from their editors on these issues, Houston warned.

“I have had situations where I have been overruled by an editor when a gender neutral pronoun was put into a story, and that’s really unfortunate when that happens.”

Reader confusion can be avoided, Houston said, if news organizations include a brief explanation of why the singular “they” was used in a text.

“Words change and language changes and it’s fantastic to educate [readers],” she added.

The panelists also discussed language sensitivities and judgment calls related to covering religion and disability.

Trumper, who is on the board of the Canadian Abilities Foundation, said that perception surrounding disability is just as important – if not more so – as the language used to describe people with disabilities.

“We are the country of Terry Fox and Rick Hansen. We tend to revere the very athletic types of people with disabilities…but that’s not a true representation of all people with disabilities because not everyone has that strong upper-body strength or strong willpower,” he said. “In reality, [people with disabilities] are just ordinary people who can sometimes do extraordinary things.”

Joyce Smith, an associate professor at the School of Journalism who teaches reporting on religion, spoke on the importance of language as it relates to religion – particularly language surrounding Muslim communities.

Words like “radical,” “moderate,” “conservative” and “liberal” often come up when reporting on terrorist attacks, she said, but can demonize and stereotype religious people – particularly Muslims.

“It’s very important to think about how these words are coming to be suggested,” said Smith. “Is it the group themselves [using these words]? Is it their opponents? Is it a critic?”

A terrorist attack may be partially motivated by religious ideology, she explained, but many cases have other contributing factors as well. After Michael Zehaf-Bibeau shot a Canadian soldier to death at Parliament Hill in 2014, many news agencies were quick to jump on the fact that he attended mosques, identified as Muslim, and had expressed support for jihadists in the past. Later, however, it was revealed that Zehaf-Bibeau had also been mentally ill and struggled with a drug addiction, factors that his mother said led to the shooting.

“It’s really important when we’re using religious words to remember that it’s not the only way to characterize someone’s motivation or their actions,” Smith said. “Separate the action from the ideology and the motivation.”