As ISIS claims responsibility for the deadly bombings in Brussels, it raises a serious question: How do news stories linking Muslims with terrorism impact the way we think of all Muslims?
University of Michigan assistant professor of communication Muniba Saleem and her fellow researchers wanted to find out. Their study is called Exposure to Muslims in Media and Support for Public Policy Harming Muslims.
Saleem tells us she and her research partners were interested in how exposure to terrorism news would influence Americans’ perceptions of Muslims and support for public policy that harms Muslims both in the United States and abroad.
The study was conducted in three phases, looking at both short-term and long-term effects among different age and demographic groups. Across the three studies, Saleem tells us one fact became very clear.
“Exposure to terrorism news increases perceptions of Muslims as aggressive,” she says, “which then increases support for public policies which are harming Muslims both internationally and domestically.”
She says they found increased support for international policies like military action in Muslim countries, and for domestic policies such as having separate and more thorough airport security lines for Muslims, creating databases to surveil Muslim communities without their knowledge or consent, and even harsher policies like revoking the voting rights of American Muslims.
Saleem tells us the results weren’t entirely surprising, but they weren’t expecting to find such willingness amongst Americans to impose harsh civil restrictions on their fellow countrymen.
“It was very shocking for us to realize that American citizens are not able to differentiate people that are far away from them versus those that are their neighbors,” she says.
“I think it just goes with the rhetoric that we’re seeing, which is simply … if this is the only representation that we have of this group in the media, and we know that the majority of Americans say that they have no daily contact with members of this group, then void of that contact, void of any other positive information, this is all that we know of this group. So of course it’s going to affect the way that we perceive members of this group that have nothing to do with these attacks.”
Saleem isn’t suggesting that news organizations refrain from talking about these attacks, but that they should be mindful of how Muslims are represented outside of these events.
According to Saleem, members of the Muslim community here in Michigan sent water bottles to the people of Flint and donated over $100,000 to the Detroit Water Fund and Wayne Metro Community Action Agency to assist those with past due water bills in Detroit. She looks also to Faatimah Knight, an American Muslim who has helped raise thousands of dollars for victims of the Charleston church shooting and the San Bernadino attacks.
“But did we see coverage of that in mainstream media?” she asks. “If all that we’re seeing in the media is that negative representation, and then we have very infrequent contact with members of this group, the majority of Americans, then we’re presenting a very one-sided view of what this group is all about.”
Saleem says they found that something as small and simple as a two-minute news clip portraying Muslims in a positive light effectively reduced perceptions of Muslims as aggressive and subsequently reduced support for public policies that harm Muslims.
“Media has a lot of power, both negative and positive. If we just have more balanced … or more positive representations, you wouldn’t see these effects that we’re finding,” she says.
Saleem encourages news organizations to think about how they’re representing the Muslim community, but adds that the burden doesn't fall entirely on the media's shoulders.
“We can’t possibly just blame the media for what they’re covering, they’re basically covering what the public wants to attend to, so I think that for the viewers and the audience it’s important to remember that what the news may be covering is one side of the story, and there’s another side that is either not being covered or is being ignored perhaps because you, the audience, is not interested in that kind of news. And so going out of your way to find alternative sources of information that provide that information, or simply knowing that this isn’t a complete story.”