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3 ways to talk about violence against Muslims (and others) when the media won't

MSNBC covers hostage crisis in Dhaka, Bangladesh
MSNBC covers hostage crisis in Dhaka, Bangladesh Photo: Dannielle Blumenthal / CC, 2016

This convention season, who is covering the aftermath of major attacks in Iraq, Turkey, Bangladesh, and Saudi Arabia?

Not surprisingly, the answer is "basically no one." For all of the talk that we will hear about U.S. foreign policy, extremism, and "safety" this week at the RNC in Cleveland and next week at the DNC here in Philly, we're not expecting much substantive coverage of the attacks that have rocked so much of the world outside of the U.S. and Europe over the past three weeks. That's because major media routinely under-cover violence against people living outside the U.S. and Europe. We've documented this, others have documented this, even Martin Belam, editor at The Guardianhas written about this with data from the site's own analytics. Major attacks in Istanbul, Dhaka, Baghdad and Medina, for example, went almost unnoticed in the U.S. media. But readers in the U.S. have a right to know - for example - that Muslims are more likely to be targeted by groups like ISIS than any other social group, and that U.S. foreign policy has played a huge role in shaping this awful state of affairs. So how do we get the conversation started? Here are 3 ways that peace and justice advocates can talk about mass violence directed at Muslims and other routinely ignored groups outside the U.S., despite this media vacuum:

1. Highlight individuals' humanity. Part of the reason for this persistent under-coverage is a long history of dehumanizing Muslims in the U.S. and abroad, as well as other groups that often get swept into the same Islamophobic bucket. To help counter this long history, peace and justice advocates should highlight individuals' humanity when talking about violence. Even better, if you can use these kinds of person-centered stories to illustrate the human consequences of larger systems of oppression, research shows that your messages will be more effective.

2. Don't be afraid of complexity. We know that messaging advice usually boils down to "keep it simple," but this is one case where we think a little context can go a long way. Part of the problem with the way massive violence abroad gets covered (when it gets covered) is that there it is over-simplified. Too often, journalists repeat the same storylines over and over again. Changing this requires messaging that accounts for the complex histories of this violence. This is isn't a blank check to bore your listeners with a history lesson. Rather, the task is to develop succinct messages that include critical information that listeners need to know.

3. Talk about nonviolence and peace building that works. You know what gets even worse coverage than violence against people outside the U.S. and Europe? Nonviolent civil action and peace building get TERRIBLE coverage. Peace and justice advocates are often very good at talking about the problems we all face. But we need to get better - all of us - at talking about how peace building works. We know that it does. Sharing these stories is a critical next-step in changing how we think and talk about violence. 

Have an example of peace and justice messaging that works? Have you been able to turn the spolight back towards pressing issues like massive violence against Muslims and other historically marginalized groups, despite the convention spectacles on TV this week? Tell us about it in the comments. 

About the Author

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Communications research | Analytics | Social inequality. Beth leads AFSC’s messaging and opinion research, which she uses to develop evidence-based communications guidance for advocates and citizens to ‘change the narrative’ on war and violence. Prior to AFSC, Beth’s research and professional work focused on health inequality in the Americas.

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