The Muslim and the biased media: Proof
Writtenby: Farwin Fousdeen..It’s well-known, but rarely acknowledged. Mainstream media thriveson the vilification of Muslims. Granted this reality and its adverseeffects on the daily life of the average (and indeed ‘moderate’)Muslim, a recent research study conducted by academics at theLancaster University is timely, to say the least. In ‘Therepresentation of British Muslims in the British Press 1998 –2009’, researchers analyzed over 200,000 media articles written onIslam and Muslim over the eleven year period. “This amounted to 143million words of journalism which was analyzed by the team usingcomputer software to search for and identify language patterns acrossthe articles in order to give an idea of the most frequent ways thatMuslims are written about.” The data for the study was sourced frombroadsheets including The Business, The Guardian, The Independent andtabloids like The Daily Express, The People, Daily Star and The Sun.
Fundedby the Economic and Social Research Council - UK's largestorganization for funding research on economic and social issues, witha total budget is £203 million for 2011/12 – the study’s mostpertinent finding is the qualitative data which clearly indicatesthat the “dominant discourses on Islam and Muslims in the UKnational press seem to revolve around issues of conflict” (Leadinvestigator, Paul Baker 2011), with a strong focus on Muslim womenand Muslims with extreme positions. According to the study, “theteam found that the majority of representations took care not to makeover-generalizing statements about Muslims in an overtly negativeway, although some tabloids did use headlines such as MUSLIMS TELLBRITISH: GO TO HELL! (Daily Express, November 4th, 2010), BBC PUTMUSLIMS BEFORE YOU! (The Star, October 18th, 2006), MUSLIM SCHOOLSBAN OUR CULTURE (Daily Express, February 20th, 2009”).
Analyzingthe study, Engage – a non-profit company working towards enhancingthe active engagement of British Muslim communities in politics,media and British national life – noted that the reportdemonstrates that reinforcement of media bias towards fringe groupsis “at the expense of mainstream Muslims, and on word associationwith Islam and Muslims engendering negative connotations with thereligion and its adherents” (Nov, 2011). The study itself iscognizant of this reality and notes, “when newspapers write about aminority group like Muslims, if they focus on a violent subset ofthat group, there is the danger that the majority suffer guilt byassociation.”
Thereport makes a careful analysis between overt and subtle forms ofvilification, drawing attention to media houses which flourish on a‘sensationalize and sell’ philosophy, and the other moredangerous form of between-the-lines vilification, which depends onword associations (like ‘terrorist’ and ‘Muslim’) which leavedeeper imprints but go unnoticed to undiscerning minds.
“Moregenerally expressly negative, and at times vituperative, were a fewcolumnists, especially in The Sun newspaper. For example, JulieBurchill (The Sun June 24th, 2009), on Muslim women who wear the veilwrote: ‘We let shroud-swishing zombies flout OUR standards offreedom and tolerance every day.’ Jeremy Clarkson (The Sun, June30th, 2007) wrote: ‘the "Muslim community" was allowed toparade through London urging passers-by to blow up a skyscraper andbehead the infidels’ and John Gaunt (The Sun June 20th, 2008) wrote‘we wasted thousands in legal aid on silly little misguided Muslimgirls to take schools to court for the right to dress like a Dalek ina full veil’. Yet, in the past, complaints about patentlyIslamophobic columnists to the Press Complaints Commission haveresulted in the response: ‘The column clearly represented a namedcolumnist’s personal view and would be seen as no more than hisrobust opinions’ – a defense that some newspapers and columnistshave clearly exploited.”
“Morecommon than the expressly negative representation of Muslims, was amore subtle set of implicitly negative representations, with Muslimsoften being ‘collectivized’ via homogenizing terms like ‘Muslimworld’ and written about predominantly in contexts to do withconflict, terrorism and extremism. For example, collectively, when aBritish newspaper mentioned the word Muslim/Muslims an ‘extremebelief’ word like extremist or fanatic occurred next to it about 1in 20 cases (proportionally, The Guardian wrote least about extremistMuslims only writing about them 1 in 36 times - at the opposite endof the spectrum The People had extremists as 1 in 8 examples of allmentions of Muslims).
Interestingly,however, the British press couldn’t decide for some time what tocall Muslim extremists. Back in 1998 they were hardliners, althoughthey had changed into fanatics by 2001. Militants took over between2002-2006, slightly overlapping with the rise of radicals from2004-2008. Starting in 2005, the press slowly settled on extremists.This is a general picture - individual newspapers had their favoriteterms: The Times also used zealots while some of the red-topssometimes opted for muppets, sheep, lowlife and cretins. Overall,references to extremist Muslims were much higher than to ‘moderate’ones. For every one moderate Muslim mentioned, 21 examples ofextremist Muslims are mentioned in the British press. It is alsointeresting to note that so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ often gotpraised in a way which implies they are good because they aren’tfully Muslim”.
Interestingly,the subject matter and principle findings of the report are not new.Research studies conducted on the same vein include CardiffUniversity’s “Images of Islam in the UK: The Representation ofBritish Muslims in the National Print News Media 2000-2008” andthe 2010 study “Media portrayals of religion and the secularsacred”. However, lending a unique credence to this study is itsexhaustive nature – 200,000 articles, 143 million words. TheCardiff study for instance was sourced by “974 newspaper articlesabout British Muslims in the British Press from 2000 to 2008”.
Echoingthe Lancaster study, the Cardiff report notes, “The language usedabout British Muslims reflects the negative or problematic contextsin which they tend to appear. Four of the five most common discoursesused about Muslims in the British press associate Islam/Muslims withthreats, problems or in opposition to dominant British values. So,for example, the idea that Islam is dangerous, backward or irrationalis present in 26% of stories. By contrast, only 2% of storiescontained the proposition that Muslims supported dominant moralvalues. Similarly, we found that the most common nouns used inrelation to British Muslims were terrorist, extremist, Islamist,suicide bomber and militant, with very few positive nouns (such as‘scholar’) used. The most common adjectives used were radical,fanatical, fundamentalist, extremist and militant. Indeed, referencesto radical Muslims outnumber references to moderate Muslims by 17 toone.”
Thequestion is instantaneous. What are the implications of this study?Granted that many studies have come and gone, how will this studytranslate into the betterment of a discriminated minority group? Ideally such studies will inspire governing authorities to step inand regulate a wayward media. But as is history is the best teacherand history has taught us this is not be expected. An interestingtake-home message emerges from the study - Muslims can initiatechange through simple actions. The conversion of ‘Moslem’ to‘Muslim’ is a case in point.
“TheDaily Mail caused consistent and known offence by spelling Muslim asMoslem; up until 2003, The Mail and The Express regularly wrote aboutMoslems. The spelling has a pronunciation which sounds like theArabic word for ‘oppressor’, and the Muslim Council wrote to bothnewspapers asking them to spell it Muslims in future. The Expresscomplied, but The Daily Mail continued with Moslem for about a yearafter that, being the last newspaper to abandon the spelling. WhereThe Mail did occasionally write approvingly of Muslims it was when itplayed one social group off against another as in the story ‘Drivenout by the Gay Mafia: Leading Scots Muslim forced to quit charitygroup after objections to his support for traditional family values’.(Daily Mail, June 15, 2006)”.
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