By: Debra Gersh Hernandez Unity '94 panelists say reporters must be more sensitive in their descriptions of complex Asian and Middle East religions, but dispelling misconceptions is not always an easy task
ALL MUSLIMS ARE not terrorists, all Buddhists are not bald men in orange robes, and all Hindus are not Ghandi. Religions of Asia and the Middle East have been subjected to severe stereotyping in the West, mostly borne from ignorance about the rich culture and beliefs that form their tenets. Seeking to dispel some of these misconceptions was an Asian American Journalists Association panel at the Unity '94 convention in Atlanta, where practitioners of these faiths and experts on religion explained how the West was wrong. Religion coverage itself has changed dramatically over the past 25 years, as have religion reporters, with both becoming vastly more diverse, explained panel moderator Cecile Holmes White, religion editor of the Houston Chronicle. "There is an effort being made to recognize that religion, like any specialty [beat], requires sensitivity and knowledge," she said. Hinduism was first introduced into America 101 years ago, and Hindus now comprise about one-sixth of all humans in the U.S., in addition to individuals who practice tenets of Hinduism such as yoga and meditation, said Anchana Dongre, a freelance writer who contributes to the publication Hinduism Today. Dongre began her presentation with a short Hindu ceremony and explained the principle beliefs and facts associated with her religion. She noted, however, that when it comes to press accounts of Hindu issues, she often sees a lot of "inaccurate and biased reporting." "As a journalist I empathize with reporters," she said acknowledging the pressures of deadline and offering guidelines to help. First, Dongre said, reporters must understand the complex background of India's religious and political issues "in order to cover it without bias. You need a grasp of the situation, or you won't get the right angle." Dongre also suggested seeking moderate Hindu opinion and urged reporters to "be as reluctant to insult our god, gods, practices, and beliefs as those of others." Detailing other points about use of the terms "secular" and "fundamentalist," as well as touching briefly on the political situation, Dongre also cautioned against those in the Indian government who "have an agenda that Western reporters all to easily absorb and report." Nampet Panichpant "converted" those in the room to Buddhists for four minutes through meditation and an explanation of some basic precepts ? such as no killing or harming of any being and no sexual or verbal misconduct, rules the group was able to keep from breaking for at least the four minutes of meditation. Panichpant, a former journalist at the Bangkok Post, cited examples of "atrocious, weird" coverage of Buddhists, such as the shooting of a group of Buddhist monks in Phoenix a few years ago. The reporting of that event, she said, showed "a lack of understanding, or something behind that." For example, Panichpant said there were articles describing the monks as wearing jewelry, something they do not do. The media also "were covering things that weren't happening," relying on accounts that were "third and fourth mouth," she said, adding that shallow coverage just "frames people's perceptions of bald-headed monks." But perhaps the group getting the worst rap are Muslims. With the end of the Cold War, terrorists have become the staple bad guys. "For a religion with 3-5 million in the United States, that has people in all professions, you would think we wouldn't be so bad off as we are," commented Salam Al Marayati, director of the Muslim Public Affairs Council. One reason, he suggested, may be that they "have not had an organized effort to reporters to get our message across." Islam has no political structure, per se, but is basically a series of mosques around the world, Al Marayati explained, noting that the "bottom line is we've been unable to project the human side of Islam." The term "Islamic fundamentalist" to describe terrorists is not accurate, he continued, since the religion of Islam is structured on justice and ethical values, not the chaos and violence seen on the screen. There is a distinction between the religion of Islam and Muslim behavior. Al Marayati also cited four particular misconceptions. One was the use of the term "Judeo-Christian" to the exclusion of other religions, which not only originated in the same region of the world but also includes some of the same basic tenets. Another was referring to it as an Arab religion, he said, pointing out that Arabs make up only a minority of Muslims. A third misconception was that Islam oppresses women, Al Marayati said, explaining that journalists have to "separate cultural biases of certain regions from the religion." And the fourth misconception was that of a religion of violence and misuse of terms that go with it, he said. Religion professor John Fenton of Emory University agreed that "Muslims in the American press get consistently negative coverage," but he has yet to figure out why, short of basic ignorance. As one of a handful of examples of bad reporting, Fenton said using the terms Shiite and terrorist interchangeably is the same as interchanging the words Protestant and terrorist because of the situation in Northern Ireland. Fenton also offered some guidelines for the media, such as having on staff people of the religion they are reporting about; interviewing people within the religion, not just on the extremes; seeking responses from both sides, especially when the story is negative; giving representative accounts; avoiding religious labels as much as possible; and asking about the effect of a story.