by Matthew Miller Feb. 10, 2011 Lansing State Journal
The first media reports filed on the October day in 2009 when FBI agents shot and killed Imam Luqman Ameen Abdullah were thick with implication, giving big play to the Detroit Muslim leader's radicalism, to claims that he had called his followers to "an offensive jihad."
The story got more complicated after that.
In the weeks following Abdullah's death in a Dearborn warehouse, it became clear that the FBI's case was about dealing in stolen goods such as laptops and fur coats, not terrorism, and that the case had been built on information from government informants who had infiltrated the Masjid Al-Haqq mosque.
What began as a story about terrorism became a story about criminality and, ultimately, a story about the FBI, its use of informants inside a religious community and its use of deadly force when agents went to apprehend Abdullah.
"The Death of an Imam," a short documentary created by professors and students from Michigan State University, is about the evolution of that media narrative.
"It's a case study of how the news media responded to this tragedy," said Geri Alumit Zeldes, a professor of journalism at MSU and the director of the film, which will be shown today at MSU.
And a study of how ideology came into play in the hours after the story broke and filled in where facts were lacking.
"Initially, there was a focus on that this may be a terrorist act," she said. "That's a frame that has been repeated often in the last decade or so in relation to Muslim people. In this case, it's wasn't a terrorist conspiracy, but that was a frame that immediately came up."
Zeldes was one of the participants in a project called "Islam, Muslims and Journalism Education," meant to help journalists and journalism students take a more informed approach to Muslims and to Islam in general.When other elements of the project were nearing completion, those involved found they had grant money left over and Abdullah's case, which still was making headlines, seemed ripe for further exploration, she said.
"There are myths and misrepresentations around Detroit in general and around the Muslim community in Detroit in particular," said Salah Hassan, an MSU English professor and one of the film's producers.
"The idea was trying to raise some questions about how the media mistakenly or unintentionally or for reasons of sensational interest may misrepresent (that community)."
And those misrepresentations have consequences, said Dawud Walid, head of the Michigan branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations and the man whose critique of the way the media covered Abdullah's story at an MSU conference last year helped inspire the film.
Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, "there has been a large amount of media coverage portraying us as the potential threat within America," he said.
"That's why it was very disturbing to many in the community. It reinforces a frame that has been prominently featured in the media that we Muslims are somehow an inherent threat to our own country. That's the major problem."
Accuracy is key
Zeldes is fond of quoting a Pew Research Center poll that found some 70 percent of news consumers look to local television news for their information.
In that respect, local media, and the accuracy of local media, is "incredibly important," she said. "It shapes what we believe."