The majority of Americans say they do not know a Muslim. For many of these Americans, what they know about Muslims comes from media representations.
However, according to media content analysis, more than 80 percent of television media coverage of Islam and Muslims in the United States is negative.
Such narrow media representations open the door to distorted public perceptions of American Muslims, especially in the absence of any first-hand knowledge of this diverse community.
The role of the media in informing the public has never been more important, especially when it comes to marginalized communities. At the same time, journalists are constantly asked to cover more and more, with less resources.
We created this guide to help.
Note: ISPU intends this page to be a living document regularly updated with new research, graphs, guides, and additional resources.
The Problem: A lack of data on American Muslims and dearth of Muslim voices in media and policy circles
The Solution: A research organization focused on the trends, opportunities, and challenges of American Muslims
Direct access to over 40 experts on issues related to Muslims in the United States
The latest survey data on demographics, religiosity, civic engagement, and attitudes towards political and social issues
Background on issues seldom discussed helps bring new perspectives to breaking news and current events
Why should journalists turn to ISPU? This short video will explain.
Since 2002, ISPU has provided data-driven education to:
Muslims come from all walks of life, as well as diverse ethnic and racial backgrounds. They play a variety of roles in their communities. Include Muslim voices in stories about what concerns all Americans. This includes the voices of:
There has never been an America without Islam and Muslims; they were early explorers, enslaved Africans, and immigrants from around the world. Casting Islam and Muslims as foreign, non-American, and “other” is inaccurate. Rather, rightly cast Muslims as a part of the diverse fabric of American society.
Americans that are Muslim are complex human beings, and their motivation is complex. Don’t assume religion is the driver of their behavior.
The use of culturally specific language to describe human behaviors that are not unique to Muslims makes such behaviors seem pathological to these communities. For example, domestic violence affects Muslim communities no more than other faith (and non-faith) communities. Reference to such incidents should be to domestic violence, not “honor crimes.”
Precious Rasheeda Muhammad speaks about Black Muslims and their centuries-long ties to the making of America, reminding journalists of the plurality of Muslim communities.
Author, award-winning speaker, historian, poet, publisher, Harvard-trained researcher
Areas of Expertise: History of Islam in America, American Muslim diversity
✅ Does my media outlet feature the voices of Americans that are Muslim in contexts outside of violence and public safety?
✅ Is my media outlet including Muslim voices in stories about subjects that concern all Americans?
✅ Does my coverage of American Muslims feature reliable mainstream Muslim experts and sources?
✅ Am I being representative and including Black Muslim voices in my reporting on “Muslim stories”?
✅ Am I considering what factors other than religion and ethnicity might explain the behavior in question? Could trauma or economic factors be a more powerful variable than ethnicity or religion?
✅ Have I included the voices of American women who are Muslim in my reporting that represent the vast majority of women’s experiences (Islam-positive, educated, and more challenged by racism and Islamophobia than Muslim misogyny, according to ISPU’s American Muslim Poll 2018)?
✅ Am I using culturally neutral language? Arabic words or culturally specific language is often used to describe behaviors that are not unique to Muslims or Arabs, making the behavior seem pathological to these communities. Before using such language, it is helpful to ask yourself: Am I assigning foreign (“Muslim-sounding”) words to a universal human behavior? What would I call this type of behavior if it didn’t involve a Muslim person?
✅ Is my story driven by the priorities and points of view of the majority? If not, am I qualifying it as a minority point of view?
Despite empirical evidence to the contrary, many misconceptions and damaging stereotypes about American Muslims often are repeated in mainstream media and go unchallenged. The following are data-driven responses to common misconceptions.
ISPU’s American Muslim Poll 2018 found that Muslims were the least likely to accept both military and individual violence against civilians.
Such data challenges the myth that Americanness and Muslimness are mutually exclusive.
But should they be expected to? Or are such expectations based in bigotry and Islamophobia? ISPU recently examined attitudes surrounding this debate. In ISPU’s 2017 American Muslim Poll, 50% of American Muslims and 44% of the general public responded that American Muslim leaders should condemn ideologically motivated violence publicly.
One point of of view: ISPU Director of Research Dalia Mogahed says, “When [acts of ideologically motivated violence perpetrated by non-Muslims] occur, we don’t suspect other people who share their faith and ethnicity of condoning them. We assume that these things outrage them just as much as they do anyone else. And we have to afford this same assumption of innocence to Muslims.”
Most Americans also agree that negative political rhetoric toward Muslims is harmful to the United States.
A recent study by ISPU found that perceived Muslims accused of a violent plot received more than seven times the media attention as their non-Muslim counterparts, despite similarities in their alleged crimes. Similarly, Muslim-perceived perpetrators accused of violent acts were referenced in the media more than four times the rate of their non-Muslim counterparts.
Individual Muslims determine the role of religious rules in their lives depending on their personal beliefs. If a legal dispute arises involving one of those rules, individuals will likely find themselves in litigation, raising claims before an American judge. Anti-shariah legislation restricts the rights of American Muslims to apply religious rules to their lives. This type of legislation is also strongly linked to other forms of bigotry and a legislative agenda aimed at excluding various minority communities from the political landscape.
As explained by American Muslim scholars, nothing in Islam gives Muslims general permission to lie. The origin of the notion of taqiyyah refers to the permissibility for Muslims to conceal their faith if identifying as Muslims puts their lives in danger.
ISPU recently asked American Muslim women why they wear an identifying religious symbol like hijab. 99 percent of respondents indicated personal reasons for wearing hijab, such as piety or the desire to be identified as a Muslim.
American women who are Muslim are one of the most educated female religious groups in the United States. They also overwhelmingly view their faith as a source of happiness and a part of their identity for which they feel a great deal of pride. As described in a recent ISPU policy brief, the rights afforded to women by Islam in the seventh century include the right to a consensual marriage, to remain their own legal entities after marriage, to initiate a divorce, to child support, to own property, to pursue education, and to be involved in social and political affairs. Many Muslim women rise to the tops of their professions as doctors, lawyers, and scholars. A recent study suggests U.S. news media’s disproportionate focus on gender discrimination in Muslim societies contributes to stereotypes that Muslims are distinctly sexist and misogynistic.
Dalia Mogahed conducts a brief overview of American Muslims. Who are they? Why does the media matter? And how can journalists replace fear with facts? Learn even more from Dalia by watching her free Poynter webinar for journalists.
ISPU Director of Research
Areas of Expertise: Public opinion, Islamophobia, Muslim women, American Muslim demographics
ISPU’s Muslims for American Progress study quantifies the impact of Muslims on U.S. communities.
In just the state of Michigan, for example, where Muslims make up only 2.75 percent of the population, Muslims contribute to every sector of society. A Michigan without Muslims would lose:
ISPU data on the diversity and demographics of the Muslim community has implications for journalists seeking to accurately represent American Muslims. Journalists might ask themselves:
As explained by the Islamic Networks Group:
The largest division of Islam
Close to 90 percent of the world’s Muslim population
Understood as an umbrella identity with no centralized clerical institution
Include adherents to the four extant schools of fiqh (religious law or understanding) including the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafii, and Hanbali
Believe in the legitimacy of the order of succession of the first four Muslim caliphs
The second largest division of Islam
Believe Ali (cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad) was the rightful leader of the early caliphate
These words have been politicized and misrepresented, and are often are used as slurs.
According to a recent study, the word “terrorist” was used in media headlines far more often in reference to perpetrators perceived as Muslim than those who are not for similar ideologically motivated crimes.
These are neutral, clear, informative alternatives to commonly misused words.
When reporting on ideologically motivated violence, use fact-based language to describe groups, persons, and events at hand. For example, describe perpetrators as “militia,” “gunmen/women,” “bombers,” etc.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this term refers specifically to “a popular reform movement advocating the reordering of government and society in accordance with laws prescribed by Islam.” The majority of these movements are nonviolent and shouldn’t be lumped together with those claiming Islam sanctions their violence.
There is no causal relationship between religious adherence and violence. We’ve never lumped the Lord’s Resistance Army and the Ku Klux Klan together as “Christianist terrorists,” even though both claim to act in the name of Biblical teachings. Instead, we simply use the group name. Do the same for all groups.
Literally, the word “jihad” means “struggle” and most often refers to the inner struggle against one’s own evil impulses, such as greed, anger, and malice. According to Muslim theologians, armed jihad is a heavily regulated military engagement where non-combatants, livestock, and even trees cannot be harmed.
Individuals who commit ideologically motivated violence and claim their actions are sanctioned by Islam should not be referred to as engaging in “jihad,” nor should they be called “jihadis” or “jihadists.” Use fact-based language to describe groups and events. Use the same standards in all coverage of ideologically motivated violence in your newsroom.
The group that refers to itself as “The Islamic State,” known also as ISIS/ISIL, has been denounced by nearly every major cleric of Islam as un-Islamic.
We recommend Daesh, which is the acronym of ISIL in Arabic, just as we say Hamas, which is the acronym for a longer Arabic name for the group. Current AP style guidance doesn’t use “The Base” for Al-Qaeda. Similarly, we shouldn’t translate other words. In all instances possible, use accurate, unloaded terms. The alternatives are ISIS/ISIL.
The diversity of Muslim communities results in a diverse array of terminology. Here are some commonly used terms:
A Muslim holiday
Holiday that marks the end of Ramadan, the Islamic holy month of fasting
An Islamic term that denotes a religious duty commanded by God
Pilgrimage to Mecca
Traditions containing sayings of the Prophet Muhammad that constitute the major source of guidance for Muslims apart from the Quran
A meal eaten by Muslims breaking their fast after sunset during the month of Ramadan
A Muslim prayer leader; can also mean congregation leaders that fulfill organizational and pastoral needs of a mosque
Friday noon prayer
Sermon given during the Friday noon prayer
A Muslim place of worship
A Muslim place of worship
Peace Be Upon Him; a prayer said by Muslims after the Prophet’s name out of reverence
Central religious text of Islam, which Muslims believe to be a revelation from God
Month of fasting, when the Quran was first revealed
Greeting of peace
A prayer; usually referring to the five daily prayers required of all Muslims as one of the pillars of Islam
The testimony of faith (There is no deity but God. Muhammad is the messenger of God)
A religious leader
The “path” or “example” of the Prophet Muhammad
The Arabic word for Quranic exegesis or interpretation
American Muslims are often viewed through a security lens, cast as either good or bad from a purely security-oriented perspective.
Relationships of trust between media professionals and individuals in the American Muslim communities produce better, richer reporting. The following tips, adapted from the Religion Communicators Council, help improve depth of coverage.
✅ Do work actively to form connections with local, national, and international Muslims to establish a relationship.
✅ Do attend a local, national, or community event.
✅ Do focus on interesting stories done by Americans who just happen to be Muslims.
✅ Do write on American Muslim stories that are not framed around ideologically motivated violence.
✅ Do find value in American Muslim experiences and contributions other than helping national security or countering violent crime.
✅ Do write more stories about the lives of American Muslim women not involving the hijab, burqa, domestic violence, or FGM.
❌ Don’t assume all hijab-wearing women (or bearded men) are religious Muslims.
❌ Don’t assume all uncovered women (or clean-shaven men) are not religious Muslims.
❌ Don’t wait for an event dealing with Muslims to develop sources. Develop a source list and make it available to colleagues.
❌ Don’t use the word “unveil” in your title.
❌ Don’t assume any person claiming to represent Muslim communities really does.
❌ Don’t use fringe Muslims as representatives for diverse Muslim communities.
❌ Don’t say the “Muslim world.” There is no “Muslim world.”
❌ Don’t assume all Muslims can speak accurately about Islam.
Kumar Rao and Carey Shenkman explain how the media covers ideologically motivated violence differently when the perpetrator is perceived to be Muslim versus not perceived to be Muslim.
Covering crime and violence in all its forms is a challenge many journalists face. The following recommendations, based on the Asian American Journalists Association reading of ISPU’s Equal Treatment? report, help inform journalists’ reporting on ideologically motivated violence.
Many experts agree that white supremacists and right-wing extremists pose a more serious threat to Americans than individuals who falsely claim Islam sanctions their crimes. Rather than paint them as “lone wolves,” coverage of these extremists should include the context of this growing national threat.
Law enforcement rarely discuss the documented role of informants and agent provocateurs in motivating and operationalizing terror plots that would have never manifested without the law enforcement asset. Journalists need to ask law enforcement about their active involvement in these plots, or lack of, and mention it in all coverage.
Every newsroom needs to have a discussion on whether and when to use the terms “terror/terrorism/terrorist.” The word “terrorism” is highly politicized and many governmental agencies have their own various definitions. We recommend moving away from the word “terrorism” and using instead “ideologically motivated violence,” which is a neutral term. The standards should be the same regardless of the suspect’s background or views. Use actual, concrete terms to describe what has happened, not buzzwords that will inflame.
Newsrooms should discuss when a suspect/offender’s race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin are relevant. Using descriptors of race, ethnicity, religion, or national origin when they’re not relevant or without explaining their relevance can perpetuate harmful stereotypes. Such stereotypes prevent discussions on how mental illness and other systemic problems can lead to violent attacks or plots.
Journalists covering ideologically motivated violence must question prosecutors and investigators over why they are or are not calling something terrorism, why they’ve chosen to charge a suspect with particular crimes, and what evidence they have for their charges.
ISPU’s report found the Justice Department sent out six times more press releases for offenders perceived as Muslim than offenders who were not, and ideology was highlighted more often in the former than in the latter. Journalists need to read between the lines, ask questions about language used and facts omitted, and verify details.
Journalists should examine what they’re covering, what they’re not covering, and ask newsroom decision-makers why. Some basic rules should apply: Does the reporting give background and context? Does it offer diverse voices? Does it follow up on events or situations to gain greater insights as well as measures of change or impact?
ISPU asked Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, a trained Islamic legal expert and professor of law at the University of Wisconsin, for a five-word definition of shariah. Her answer: Shariah is “Islam’s recipe for a good life.” According to Quraishi-Landes:
Shariah ≠ Islamic Law
According to Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes, translating shariah as “Islamic law” is problematic because in the United States, we think of law as derived and enforced by the state. However, religious law, like Jewish halakha or Islamic shariah, are often complete systems of doctrine that do not require state power to govern individual behavior.
According to Quraishi-Landes: “Fiqh are Muslim rules of right action.”
Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes conducts a brief overview of shariah. What is it? How is it related to secular law? How does it affect the lives of Muslims around the world?
ISPU Scholar, Professor of Law at University of Wisconsin Law School
Areas of Expertise: Comparative Islamic and U.S. constitutional law, American Muslims, civil liberties, U.S. politics, civil rights, religion, Muslims in the West
According to Islamic legal expert Dr. Asifa Quraishi-Landes:
ISPU’s Islamophobia 2050 Restrictive Measures Map shows that (1) lawmakers that target Muslims also often support laws that disproportionately harm other marginalized communities and (2) such laws adversely affect communities of color, and others according to their national origin/ethnicity, civic association, gender, or sexual identity.
ISPU’s data helps paint a more accurate, nuanced portrait of American Muslim women.
What characterizes representations of Muslim women in the media? How does this compare to representations of non-Muslim women? A recent, large-scale study of New York Times and Washington Post coverage of Muslim and non-Muslim women in foreign countries between 1980 and 2014 suggests the following:
⇢ More likely to appear in stories about societies with poor records of women’s rights
⇢ Coverage reduced to issues specific to gender inequality at the expense of other issues
⇢ More likely to appear in stories about societies where their rights are respected
⇢ Presented with greater complexity
“U.S. media consumers are fed a particularly pernicious stereotype of Muslims: that they are distinctly sexist and misogynistic. This paints Muslims as a cultural threat to Western values. Since most Americans do not have direct contact with Muslims in their daily lives, media seriously influences public attitudes about Islam.”
– Dr. Rochelle Terman, postdoctoral fellow at the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University
ISPU knows that media matters, and we are committed to helping journalists and media professionals do their best work.
MA candidate in Communication, San Diego State University
ISPU Director of Research
ISPU Senior Communication Manager
ISPU Communication & Creative Media Specialist
National reporter for BuzzFeed News, covering U.S. Muslim life. She previously spent a decade as a foreign correspondent at McClatchy, serving as Baghdad bureau chief during the Iraq War and Cairo bureau chief during the Arab Spring uprisings. She has also reported extensively on national security and race/demographics
Pulitzer Prize finalist, a former foreign correspondent, author and university instructor. He helped write and create “Islam for Journalists and Everyone Else.” He has trained journalists in Africa, the Arab world and South Asia.
Managing Director of the Security and Rights Collaborative at ReThink Media; expert in political communications, media relations, and anti-Islam prejudice in the United States
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