NY Times Portrays Islam More Negatively Than Cancer, Major Study Finds

Overwhelming proof points to an institutional bigotry.

new york times
Photo Credit: shutterstock

The November 2015 416 Labs report states that there is a “significant bias” against Islam and Muslims in the New York Times that is likely to lead the average reader to “assign collective responsibility to Islam/Muslims for the violent actions of a few.”

“When we went into it we didn’t think it would be surprising if Islam was one of the most negatively portrayed topics in the NYT,” says co-author Usaid Siddiqui. “What did really surprise us was that compared with something as inherently negative as cancer, Islam still tends to be more negative.”

Islam was portrayed negatively in 57 percent of headlines during the period of analysis, with cancer and cocaine being evaluated at 34 and 47 percent respectively. Islam was portrayed positively in less than half the headlines as cancer. 

Christianity and Judaism, meanwhile, were portrayed negatively in 37 and 34 percent of headlines, 20 or more percent less than Islam.

Islam was mentioned in 5.4 headlines per day in 2014, nearly a 1,000 percent rise from 2013, likely due to ISIL. The percentage of negative headlines regarding Islam and Muslims also jumped in 2014, to 68 percent from 35 percent in 2009.

The negative portrayal of Islam is not new, according to the report, as the percent of negative headlines regarding Islam exceeded the overall average in the NYT in every year measured. The report’s findings offer qualitative proof of something many Muslims have long suspected, says co-author Owais Arshad, who disseminated the findings to several prominent Muslim groups, such as the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“Over time it just became too rampant to ignore,” Arshad says. “Among the Muslim friends I have, there’s been a distinct recognition that the media is a source of information, but a source of biased information.”

The report references its findings as proof that bias against Muslims is not limited to conservatives, noting that, “While the liberal media has been more nuanced in its portrayal, it has ultimately adhered to the same convention that portrays Muslims as the 'other.'"

The researchers analyzed over 2.6 million NYT print and digital headlines, spanning from 1990 to 2014. Headlines were categorized as positive, negative or neutral using sentiment analysis, a procedure where the sentiment of a combination of words is judged by attributing a value to the words based on a dictionary list. 

The 416 Labs report used a list of over 7,200 words compiled in 2012, in addition to a violence vocabulary word list, to tailor a unique collection of words to measure the headlines. The report cites an example of how this analysis works, noting that “stock market plunge causes devastating loss and panic” is a notably more negative headline than “stock index decreases as a result of market correction,” despite addressing the same subject. The Times was selected for the study because it provides its data for free, via the Article Search API protocol, unlike other media outlets, and is deemed by many to be a “paper of record,” according to the report. 

Headlines from recent NYT articles reinforce the report's claims. Here are a few, from February 14-18: Sexual Misery and Islam; Iran's Zarif Tells European Lawmakers Islamist Militancy Also Their Problem; Bangladesh Arrests Publisher for Books Said to Hurt Muslims; Trial Starts in Attack at Exhibit of Anti-Islam Cartoons. These all classify as negative according to the report's scoring system.

The co-authors do not believe the newspape intentionally portrays Islam negatively. Still, the report notes that the effect of “such language does promote the idea that Islam and its adherents are culpable for the violent actions of a few,” a frustrating reality for the co-authors.  

“How can you say that war, and violence and terror are the summation of the Muslim experience?” Arshad asks, noting Islamic art, music and literature have been ignored. “A very complex living culture that extends from Indonesia all the way to Morocco, and within the West itself, has been reduced to a very small slice.”

The media bias against Islam has serious consequences, according to the report, which states that, “The current conflicts and security policies adopted by Western countries in the war on terror are often justified by citing the threats posed by Islamist militants and jihadist forces.” The report found that the word “militant” is among the top five words associated with Islam and Muslims, with the other four being neutral terms such as “state.” None of the top 25 words associated with Islam and Muslims were positive. 

Headlines regarding Islam and Muslims are just one part of the problem, however, as there are countless articles discussing Islam/Muslims in a negative manner without using either term in the headline. Moreover, these headlines are occasionally reinforced by explicitly Islamophobic articles. 

“Sexual Misery and Islam,” published February 12 and responding to the alleged New Year's Eve attacks on women in Germany, is a clear example. The author, Kamel Daoud, writes, “In some of Allah’s lands, the war on women and on couples has the air of an inquisition,” adding that, “People in the West are discovering, with anxiety and fear, that sex in the Muslim world is sick, and that the disease is spreading to their own lands.” 

A collective response from scholars to the article, published in Jadaliyya, notes that "the author recycles the most well-worn orientalist clichés, from Islam as a religion of death to the psychology of the Arab crowds. Far from offering a profound and detached approach to the question— something that is required given the gravity of the current situation—Daoud’s article only feeds the Islamophobic fantasies of a growing proportion of the European (and American) public and under the comfortable pretext of refusing to engage in a naive optimism." 

These articles, combined with the overwhelmingly negative sentiment of headlines, make the New York Times complicit in normalizing inflammatory rhetoric regarding Islam and Muslims. This discourse has contributed to an upswing in Islamophobic incidents, according to prominent figures in American Muslim communities, which should serve as an imperative for the NYT to seriously reconsider how it reports on Muslims. 

The report suggests that one way to combat the bias is to hire Muslim reporters, opinion writers and editors. On this front, the Times is clearly failing. The publication has no Muslim columnists, editorial board members or news editors. Andrea Elliot, who covered Muslims in post-9/11 America until 2013, is not Muslim. Since then, very few, if any of the reporters covering Muslim American issues are actually Muslim.

Still, as Arshad notes, the problem is not confined to the New York Times, and is in-fact industry wide, though they have not yet crunched the data for other publications. As such, the report notes that a less negative portrayal of Islam and Muslims is of the utmost importance, not only for accuracy, but for the well being of Muslims in the United States and throughout the world. 

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