The Press Council advises newspapers and magazines to be careful about using in their headlines terms for religious or ethnic groups that could imply that the group as a whole was responsible for the actions of a minority among that group.
The use of the words "Islam", "Islamic" and "Muslim" in headlines on reports of terrorist attacks has caused problems both for the Muslim community in Australia and the Australian media. It is important for newspapers to identify as clearly as possible the sources of terror; casting the net of suspicion and accusation too widely can be harmful.
The Council is also aware of instances beyond the Australian Muslim community, and the concern with terrorism, where the use of overly general terms has caused concern for Indigenous people and the Australian Jewish community, among many others.
The Council acknowledges that, in some cases, the linking of words with religious connotations to terrorist groups may be, in the strictest sense, accurate - but it is often unfair. For example, terrorists may be Muslims, but Muslims are not necessarily terrorists, as some headlines have implied.
The Council urges publications to be aware of the sensitivities of groups about whom they are reporting. Headlines are a particular problem, given the need to capture the essence of a story within a limited compass, and require particular care.
In a September 2001 press release, the Council expressed its concern "about references to race, colour, ethnicity or nationality which promote negative stereotypes in the community". Similarly, the Council considers that the use of wide, too-general terms for religious or ethnic groups in headlines could contribute to the promotion of a negative stereotype of that group.
Even the use of headlines of the style "Muslim terror" and "Islamic bomb attack" would be best avoided as they can be seen to link religious belief and its adherents to deliberate acts of terror. The Muslim community has told the Press Council that it has already experienced the cumulative effect of the frequent use of the religious terms, which has led to increased divisions in Australian society and ostracising of citizens simply because they belong to a recognisable minority.
The Council appreciates that the problem extends to other religions, and to other groups whose standing may be tarnished by actions emanating from a minority of members, and therefore urges publications to be as narrow and focused as possible in their description of those responsible.
The Council also notes that full reports do not constitute as great a problem as headlines, since more accuracy can be achieved outside the limitations of headline space. However, both aspects of presentation need care.