SPJ organizes Muslimedia to provide platform for conversation

CATEGORIES: News, Students
Greenlee School journalists and members of the Darul Arqum Islamic Center in Ames discuss the Islamic faith and journalism at Muslimedia. Photo by Michael Heckle

Free speech, free thinking, free food. That was the basic premise of Muslimedia, an event organized in November by Iowa State’s Leo Mores chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) in partnership with the Darul Arqum Islamic Center in Ames.

The event brought together 15 Muslim community members and 15 journalists, including Greenlee students and faculty and Iowa State Daily staffers, to share a halal meal and have an open discussion about the Muslim faith, journalism and how local media covers the Islamic community. It included presentations on the basics of Islam and journalism.

Building on an existing model

SPJ’s Florida chapter first developed the program as a way for journalists and Muslim leaders to discuss the “practical and ethical issues about reporting on the world’s second-biggest religion,” according to SPJ’s website.

Nik Heftman, president of the Iowa State chapter, applied for a micro-grant to support the meal, making the Iowa State chapter the sixth in the nation to organize a Muslimedia event.

Heftman, a December 2017 graduate in journalism and mass communication, said the discussion provided an opportunity for Muslims and journalists in Ames to “build a bridge” and understand each other “outside what we might see on TV and outside what they might see on TV.”

“Everyone in the mosque seemed really interested to learn about journalism and how to get involved. That was something I was happy to see … a lot of members of the mosque wanted to get involved with local news,” Heftman said.

Brenda Witherspoon, Greenlee senior lecturer and faculty adviser of Iowa State’s SPJ chapter, and Mark Witherspoon, editorial adviser of the Iowa State Daily Media Group, also worked with Heftman and members of the Islamic center’s public relations committee to plan the event.

“Journalists’ job is to tell the stories of the community they serve. In Ames, that community includes lots of different people who aren’t always covered at all, covered well and engaged in conversations about what coverage matters to them, so this was a chance to start that with a program that already existed and with one group of people in Ames as a starting place,” said Brenda Witherspoon.

A greater understanding

Shafraz Omer, a graduate student in physics, is a member of the mosque’s public relations committee. The committee endeavors to get the word out about the Muslim faith, the Islamic center, which he said serves people from over 60 countries, and the center’s role in the community.

Shafraz said guests were also able to observe Muslim prayer, so they could see aspects of the faith in practice. He said members of the mosque appreciated the open atmosphere, noting attendees also discussed topics such as when it is or isn’t appropriate to bring up a person’s faith in media coverage. He said he hopes the journalists know they have resources if they have questions about Islam or the mosque.

“We were able to discuss our side, how we feel about media now. I think they explained the difference between the mainstream media and journalists. I think for both sides, we had a really good conversation,” Shafraz said.

Angela Powers, the Greenlee School’s director, was amongst the faculty who attended.

“This was an opportunity to bring together students from many different backgrounds to talk about stereotypes in the media. We came away with a much better understanding of Islam as a system of faith and how media, and journalists in particular, can help create a more inclusive environment. This lively, face-to-face discussion opened many doors for our students in the Greenlee School and members of our community,” Powers said.

Heftman and Brenda Witherspoon said they hope the momentum from Muslimedia will propel Iowa State’s SPJ chapter to host similar events in the community with other groups.

“We want to brainstorm ideas on how we can … bridge that gap between underrepresented communities and the local media. If we do that, then we can bridge the gap between underrepresented communities and the greater community of Ames and the greater community of Iowa,” Heftman said.

“Some of those students will become journalists and maybe a better understanding of the people who live in their neighborhoods will help them think about a more diverse set of story ideas, ask different questions, seek different sources or more sources. …I think everybody at least walks out having made a few more connections with other human beings. And maybe their world is just a little bigger place than it was when they walked in,” said Brenda Witherspoon.

Michael Heckle and Nik Heftman of the Iowa State chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists put together a video about the Ames Muslimedia event as a resource for other SPJ chapters that may want to organize a similar event.