Research & Insights

Media Depictions of Muslims Divide Us

Media has the power to shape our beliefs and influence our support for different policies.

Stereotypical media depictions of Muslims as terrorists increase support for public policies that harm Muslim Americans and Muslims abroad, according to new research.

The results come from a series of experiments were published in the December 2015 issue of the journal Communication Research.

In one experiment, social psychologist Muniba Saleem and her colleagues asked 719 participants about their exposure to news stories that portray Muslims as terrorists.

To measure participants exposure and views toward Muslims groups, participants rated their responses to statements in a survey such as: “How often have you seen news stories about terrorism perpetrated by Muslims?” “I feel strong ties with fellow Americans” and “Muslims are dangerous.”

Then participants were asked if they would support the restriction of civil liberties for Muslim Americans. They responded to statements such as “Muslim Americans should not be allowed to vote” and “Muslim Americans should have to do annual security clearance checks with government agencies.”

The researchers found that increased exposure to news coverage depicting Muslims as terrorists was related to participants viewing Muslims as aggressive and dangerous and supporting restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslims in America.

Another experiment divided 400 participants into four groups who saw different videos of Muslims in America.

Some participants saw a clip that stated that “six Muslim men…had planned to attack Fort Dix with the goal of killing as many soldiers as possible.” Others saw a neutral clip, which discussed a change in a high school football practice schedule in Dearborn, Michigan, “to accommodate the Muslim students who were fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan.” A third group of participants saw a positive clip that featured Muslims volunteering in Detroit, Michigan, during Christmas, and a control group didn’t see a video.

After viewing the clips, the participants completed the same survey described above with the addition of questions like “I would support the use of U.S. military to reduce the influence of Islam on other countries.”

The researchers found that participants who saw the terrorism clip were most likely to believe that Muslims are aggressive and most likely to support restrictions on the civil liberties of Muslims as well as military action against Muslims abroad.

At the same time, the participants who saw the positive clip of Muslims volunteering were least likely to support these policies.

Media plays an important role in countering anti-Muslim beliefs and policies.

“More balanced news coverage of Muslims, in the United States as well as worldwide, would reduce the perception that Muslims are necessarily violent,”  suggest the researchers.

Communication Research

Muniba Saleem, University of Michigan
Sara Prot and Craig A. Anderson, Iowa State University
Anthony F. Lemieux, Georgia State University and the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism

Posted: February 3, 2016
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