Since the terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, news stories with negative portrayals of Muslims have dominated the media. This negative coverage is made more problematic when right-wing news channels fail to explicitly distinguish between radical Islam and the interpretation of Islam that is accepted by the overwhelming majority of Muslims, who do not support terror. In fact—maybe unsurprisingly—at least one empirical study has shown that Fox News watchers are significantly more likely to have negative views of Muslims.
At the same time, anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be increasing across America. At Donald Trump rallies, we have seen overt hostility towards Muslim attendees. Most of us needn’t look further than our social media newsfeeds to see evidence of a growing animosity towards people of Islamic faith, especially amongst more conservative friends or unstable, mildly racist uncles. In accordance with these observations, a new study has found that short-term exposure to news that portrays Muslims in a negative way actually causes viewers to support policies that harm Muslims internationally and domestically.
The study’s clever design broke participants into three groups, where each group was shown a 2-3 minute news clip from YouTube that portrayed Muslims in different ways. The news clip featured either a negative story, a neutral story, or a positive story about Muslims. The negative story involved an attempted terror attack on Fort Dix, in which six Muslim males were captured after their plot to kill as many American soldiers as possible was discovered and thwarted. The neutral news story discussed how a football practice schedule was changed due to Ramadan, a holy month in which Muslims fast during daylight. The positive news clip featured an Islamic leader urging the Muslim community to come together to help non-Muslim citizens during Christmas. After the news clip was presented, each group was given surveys that assessed their support for military action against Muslim countries, as well as their support for civil restrictions against Muslim Americans.
What the study found was that the participants who viewed the negative news clip perceived Muslims as more aggressive, and as a result were more supportive of attacks on Muslim nations. With this in mind, it is easy to see why Republican presidential candidates like Ted Cruz, who has suggested that we “carpet bomb” areas of the Middle East—which would undoubtedly kill a significant number of civilians—are receiving widespread support from viewers of right-wing news outlets.
Additionally, and perhaps more disturbingly, those who watched the negative news clip were in favor of restricting the civil rights of Muslim Americans, which once again can help explain the changes in popularity of certain Republican presidential candidates. For example, when Donald Trump stated that if elected president he would ban all Muslims from entering the country, he received a dramatic rise in the polls. Similarly, neurosurgeon Ben Carson saw his only significant boost in the polls immediately after he stated that he believed no Muslim should ever be elected president. This recent study is significant because it provides convincing evidence that the negative news stories that are commonly broadcast by the media have real and harmful effects on Muslims at home and abroad, and that politicians are actively exploiting the fears they promote.
However, this study also yielded findings that are more optimistic. The group of people that viewed the positive news clip about Muslims were significantly less likely to be in favor of military action against Muslim nations, and less willing to restrict American Muslims’ rights.
So how can we use this information to improve the situation? For a starter, the media could make a conscious effort to bring some balance to news stories involving Muslims. Although it is an undeniable fact that radical Islam is igniting terrorism around the world at an alarming right, the authors of the study suggest that journalists could also run segments where they speak to Muslim Americans about their opposition to terrorist attacks. Additionally, the media could seek out positive stories regarding Muslims in America. For example, a Muslim organization called “Who Is Hussain?” donated 30,000 bottles of water to the Red Cross in Flint, Michigan in an effort to alleviate the terrible water contamination crisis that the city is currently undergoing. Unfortunately, media coverage of this type is rare because violent stories that elicit fear are simply better for ratings.
Some may claim that intentionally seeking out positive stories about Muslims in order to balance out the negative ones would be distorting the reality of the situation. However, given the fact that the overwhelming majority of Muslims, especially Muslim Americans, are peaceful and opposed to ISIS, such an effort would actually lead to reporting that is more representative of the real world.
Some public figures and commentators who are otherwise liberal in their views, like Bill Maher and Sam Harris, believe that we must be able to openly and harshly criticize Islam, as it is their opinion that the religion is a fundamentally violent and destructive ideology. Whether or not that is true, Maher and Harris need to be practical about the reality of the situation, and realize that focusing only on the negative aspects of Islam can and will lead to public support for policies that harm innocent Muslims—moderates who vehemently oppose the ideology of groups like ISIS and Al-Qaeda. So in our quest for truth we must be honest and critical of ideas, but also mindful of the potentially dangerous effects of our language. Achieving the appropriate nuance may not be an easy task, but it is something we should strive for. Additionally, balanced reporting will also help protect against the rise of politicians and presidential candidates who exploit voters’ fears purely as a strategy to win elections.