Is the media fueling global conflict?

Journalists don’t make the news – they just report it, right? Not so fast. Anthropologist Scott Atran believes that radical Islamic terrorists use the Western media to manipulate attitudes and to create and escalate conflict. He notes that while recent terrorist attacks have resulted in many tragic causalities, with the help of the Western media, the actions of a few men have affected millions. The Western media’s framing of terrorist events as “assaults on freedom,” coupled with erroneous conceptions of Islam and Muslims, has given terrorists a ready-made platform to communicate their messages to the world. Is the media, then, the oxygen fueling global conflict, creating an “us” vs. “them” narrative, escalating hostilities, thereby playing right into the goals of terrorists?

Atran isn’t alone in his concerns over the ways that Islam is portrayed in the Western media. A substantial body of research has documented the rampantly prejudiced media coverage of Muslims. For example, one study found that in American print and television news, representing all ends of the the political spectrum, news stories about Muslims tended to be negative, even when positive stories are also newsworthy. Negative framing of Muslims isn’t unique to the United States, either: An analysis of 345 published studies on Muslim media representations across the globe found that Muslims tend to be characterized as violent and Islam framed as a violent religion.

A near-universal negative portrayal of Islam by the media isn’t just problematic, but woefully inaccurate. In the Western news the most commonly presented image of a Muslim is as that of an Arab terrorist. But the overwhelming majority of Muslims are peaceable, and most aren’t even Arab (more than 60% are Asian).

Rather than becoming more informed about Islam, then, it would seem that one’s perception of reality might actually become more and more distorted by reading and watching more news. It’s easy to see how a monolithic and negative portrayal of Islam could create misplaced hostilities towards Muslims. Or so it would seem. Up until now, we’ve had little idea whether or not media exposure in Western societies affects people’s attitudes towards Muslims on a nation-wide scale.

Joseph Bulbulia, Chris Sibley, Danny Osborne and I recently tested the media-fueled Islamophobia hypothesis on a nation-wide scale in New Zealand, one of the world’s most tolerant societies. We analyzed data from 16,584 people enrolled in the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study. The NZAVS is a 20-year nationwide longitudinal study that tracks the attitudes and values of the same New Zealanders year after year. Chris started the study in 2009 with the goal of understanding – and combatting – prejudice.

Given the high level of tolerance in New Zealand, there was good reason to doubt that the Western media would increase prejudice toward Muslims, despite evidence of a biased national media. Biased media representations might not impact New Zealander’s attitudes toward Muslims because all people tend to interpret the media through their pre-existing biases – we tend to seek out news that confirms our worldview, and discount news that conflicts with it. Therefore, in a society where most people are tolerant, biased negative representations of Muslims could actually serve to reduce anti-Muslim prejudice. The strongest test of the media-fueled Islamophobia hypotheses, in other words, comes from data drawn from a highly tolerant society like New Zealand.

To test the effect of the media on attitudes toward Muslims, we asked people to report the amount of time they spent watching or reading the news, and how much anger and warmth they felt toward Muslims. We also asked people about their feelings toward Asians and Arabs. We examined the effects of media exposure on these groups after adjusting for factors known to influence prejudice, such as gender, age, education, socio-economic status, and political ideology.

We found that after adjusting for the factors known to be associated with prejudice, increased news exposure predicted increased prejudice toward Muslims. Interestingly, this result held across the political spectrum. Conservatives started out more prejudiced toward Muslims than liberals, but even liberals who attended to the news more often reported higher levels of prejudice than liberals who paid less attention to the news. Again, there’s no reason to suspect that consuming more news leads to a more accurate understanding of Islam, but there is reason to expect that paying more attention to the news would lead to greater prejudice borne of misinformation.

One might object that we’re incorrect in blaming the media because the media are simply feeding a pre-existing appetite for prejudice, rather than fueling it. However, we found that increased news exposure is also related to a trend toward increased anti-Arab prejudice, but not anti-Asian prejudice. Because most Muslims in New Zealand are Asian, these results would be puzzling in the absence of a media-driven Islamophobia – one that confounds Islam with Arab ethnicity. This, in turn, suggests media is fueling prejudice rather than feeding it. Perhaps, as Atran suggests, the media are fueling hostilities in exactly the way terrorists anticipated. Regardless of a hypothesized terrorist agenda, it appears that the media are amplifying both local and global conflict.

Although the results of our study are perhaps cause for despair, we have hopes for the future. Atran suggests that a shift in media focus toward the social good has the potential to combat terrorist goals, partially limiting their damage in the West. What we need, for example, are positive examples of Muslims, and more coverage of events such as the recent protest by Islamic women condemning a terrorist attack in London. Indeed, studies show that positive exemplars of minority groups have the power to reduce prejudice. Such positive examples of Muslims living in Western societies seem particularly critical to not only improving perceptions of Muslims, but to providing a more accurate picture of the world. To change the way that Muslims are represented in the news might cut at the very heart of the terrorist agenda. But changes would also improve the lives of Muslims living in Western societies – people who suffer as any Westerners do from a terrorist attack.

The full write-up of our study, which was Funded by the Royal Society of New Zealand Marsden Fund, can be found at the journal PLOS ONE.

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