New Study Shows Just How Warped and Warlike Mainstream Media Coverage of Islam Is

According to a disturbing yet fascinating new study on the link between US media coverage and violence, entitled “Mixed Messages: How the media covers “violent extremism” and what you can do about it”, nearly 90% of all national reporting on extremism includes a mention of Islam, even when Islam or Muslims had nothing to do with the story. In contrast, only 13% of the articles about extremism mentioned Christianity and 4% referenced Judaism.

“If there is one story we can tell from this dataset, it is that Islamophobia in the media is—unfortunately—alive and well” the report concluded.

The study was conducted by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a progressive Quaker organization based in Philadelphia with offices around the US.

AFSC researchers surveyed 603 news items gathered from Lexis-Nexis search for articles with the term ‘extremism’, published during a 3 month period between April 15th and July 15th 2015. Of the 20 media outlets investigated, 15 were national news organizations like CNN and NPR - and 5 were ‘influencer’ or specialist media organizations popular amongst policy makers, like Politico and Roll Call. The researchers found that national media outlets, especially broadcast outlets, were more prone to mentioning Islam in their coverage of extremism (96%) than specialist ones (76%).

The language associated with Islam was found to be disparaging and routinely suggested an underlying connection between Islam and violence. As an example, the report cited a New York Times article from June 2015 that quotes a local informant suggesting that “under the skin of every single Sunni there is a tiny Daesh”.  In other cases Islamic extremism was compared to cancer or having a “metastasizing” effect on the Muslim youth. The study points out that “such language makes it seem like there is a natural or predetermined link between Islam and extremism, rather than framing religious rhetoric as a tool employed by politicized, organized actors with a specific agenda”.

Media focus on ISIS weakens anti-war messaging

The author of the report, Beth Hallowell, told Alternet that she and her colleagues were prompted to launch the study as ISIS started to gain more coverage in the US press. As mainstream media focused more intensely on the extremist group, Hallowell said that AFSC’s “staff on the ground started to notice that their pro-peace messages were losing traction”.

“In the aftermath of U.S. military intervention in Iraq and Afghanistan, our staff had had some success building support for things like decreased military spending. But that support dried up as ISIS gained more and more coverage” she added.

In the post 9/11 era, several studies conducted by think tanks and academic institutions have demonstrated the alarming portrayal of Islam by Western mainstream press. A study conducted by MediaTenor of US, British and German media coverage of Islam revealed that most stories related to Islam were negative. While many positive stories were found on Christianity and Judaism, there were hardly any about Islam and Muslims. A report by Cardiff University found that two-thirds of the nearly 1000 articles examined between the time period 2000-2008 considered British Muslims a ‘threat’ and a ‘problem’.

Another major finding of the AFSC’s new study was that extremist groups were framed by media as military targets without any attention to the motives or identity of their members. Extremists were often described as barbarians or simply crazy, an unsurprising trend as the report found that violent episodes such as the killing of Ethiopian Christians in Libya by ISIS or the murderous rampages of Boko Haram in Nigeria comprised the bulk of the content analyzed.

Overall, 57% of the news items presented violent groups as irrational. Such was the case about 61% of the time in national media outlets while specialist groups demonstrated more nuance with only 29% of their reporting using such language. ABC and NBC were most responsible for the crazy/irrational frame, with a full 100% of their news transcripts applying this framework.

Perhaps more surprising was how 61% of coverage described extremist groups as “calculating, organized, rational actors” rather than irrational entities. This was true for 71% of the items observed in specialist category who were more likely to adopt such a framework than national media outlets. Such framing involved discussing the ability of violent groups like ISIS to coordinate “media operations”, “recruiting efforts” and “organized transnational crime” efforts. The results also indicated an overlap in framing, with 29% of the item portraying extremist entities as both rational and irrational.

The study states that “framing conflicts in terms of conventional war, or actors as both ‘very normal’ until they become ‘ISIS zombies,’ downplays…the current social context: the downstream effects of more than a century of colonialism, over half a century of U.S. reliance on oil, largely from the Middle East…”

Furthermore, by completely downplaying the “diversity and complexity” of the Muslim world, the study emphasises that the media creates “the monolith ‘Muslim other’ trope” providing legitimacy for war proposals and its enablers. Simply put, It’s easier to bomb someone who seems irreconcilably different—a flat character in a story rather than a sister, brother, husband, mother, work colleague, or hometown friend”.  

Hallowell told AlterNet that too often the perspective of military and political personnel is given priority despite the fact that they are more predisposed to a militaristic strategy in responding to conflicts than grassroots reporters and activists. The tendency of journalists to give voice to official and military sources highlights the stenographic culture that pervades mainstream media.

“One of our findings was that of all of the sources that media outlets used in coverage of extremism, three of the top eight most-quoted sources were the White House (#8), the U.S. military (#7) and another media source (#1)” said Hallowell. She recommends that journalists broaden their sources or else “mainstream outlets in particular will just keep repeating what the White House, the military, and other outlets are already saying.”

The study also revealed that media coverage of responses to Islamic extremism focused almost exclusively on military strategy, while non-violent protests or diplomacy efforts hardly featured. Approximately five times more coverage was given to armed responses to conflict than non-violent ones.

The report proclaims that organized nonviolent actions have been suppressed not just in the coverage of extremism in the Muslim world but in places like Somalia and the Korean Peninsula as well.

Covering Clinton

Last month a lengthy article in the New York Times titled “How Hillary Clinton Became a Hawk” was published detailing the pro-war stances of Clinton. Many criticized the outlet for not releasing the article earlier in the election cycle when the Democratic presidential nomination was still up for grabs, and before the superdelegates had made up their minds.

The Times reported that Jack Keane, a former high ranking military general is the single biggest influence on Clinton’s interventionist approach. Keane also happens to be the “resident hawk” on Fox News, regularly advocating more intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The AFSC report notes that Fox News failed to mention a single non-violent response to extremism in their coverage of conflicts across the Muslim world.

Hallowell believes there is a cause for concern on both sides of the political spectrum. “War does not lead to peace” she said, citing previous research that shows non-violent measures work better in the long run than military interventions. One of the three recommendations made in the report to improve the media narrative around extremism, in addition to humanizing marginalized groups and providing more context to conflicts, include paying greater attention to diplomatic and peacebuilding efforts at the government and grassroots level. Considering how this is a systemic and industry wide issue, implementing these proposals won’t be easy.

Hallowell however remains hopeful, however. During the run up to the Iowa Caucus and New Hampshire primary, AFSC had some success in generating a counter-narrative to the militaristic language familiar to the campaign. As Hallowell put it, the main reason the Communications Research program came to fruition at AFSC was to counter the media narrative that provides momentum for perpetual warfare.

Hallowell calls the new student “one of our first major efforts to document the high levels of violence and warmongering that bombard the public every day, as well as to share data-driven recommendations on how to change this awful narrative”.


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