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Muslims overwhelmingly shown negatively in Western media, US political scientists find

Stop the War Coalition placards that say "No to Islamophobia. No to war." on November 20, 2021 in London, England. [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]
Stop the War Coalition placards that say "No to Islamophobia. No to war." on November 20, 2021 in London, England. [Hollie Adams/Getty Images]

Muslims are overwhelmingly portrayed in a negative light in American and Western media, two political scientists have discovered through the analysis of hundreds of thousands of articles.

In a report published by the Associated Press's (AP) outlet The Conversation, Erik Bleich and A. Maurits van der Veen, political scientists and professors at the universities of Middlebury and William & Mary, stated their findings that media outlets and organisations in the Western world, especially in the US, have been writing negatively about Muslims for at least over the past 26 years.

After downloading 256,963 articles mentioning Muslims or Islam – through popular media databases such as LexisNexis, Nexis Uni, ProQuest, and Factiva – while using the shorthand term "Muslim articles", the two professors were able to develop a reliable method to measure the stories' positivity or negativity by comparing them to a random sample of 48,283 other articles about different general topics.

What they found from the results of the almost 257,000 articles – which were sourced from 17 national, regional, and tabloid newspapers in the US from 1 January, 1996, to 31 December, 2016 – was that the average one mentioning Muslims or Islam in the US was more negative than 84 per cent of the articles from the random sample of other articles.

That meant, essentially, that for every one article portraying Muslims or Islam in a negative light in American newspapers, someone would have to read six articles on another topic to find even one piece that was as negative.

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The study also collected US newspaper articles regarding other minority religious groups, namely Catholics, Jews, and Hindus. The professors confirmed that articles about Muslims were significantly more likely to be negative than articles about those other three religious groups, which had a 50-50 proportion of positive and negative stories. In comparison, it was found that 80 per cent of all articles related to Muslims were negative.

The negative portrayals are often conducted indirectly and subtly, using words with sinister connotations in the same sentences with Muslims or Islam. The report gave the example of the sentence: "The Russian was made to believe by undercover agents that the radioactive material was to be delivered to a Muslim organization." The words "undercover" and "radioactive" are words with negative connotations, leading readers to subconsciously associate them with the "Muslim organization".

It was not only newspapers and articles in the US which were compared and analysed, however, but the study also analysed the coverage of Muslims in newspapers based in the UK, Canada, and Australia through 528,444 articles in the same period. It was found that the proportion of negative to positive articles in those countries were almost precisely the same as those in American newspapers.

The report by Bleich and van der Veen stated that "The divergence is striking. Our work shows that the media are not prone to publishing negative stories when they write about other minority religions, but they are very likely to do so when they write about Muslims."

They stressed that "acknowledging and addressing the systemic negativity in media coverage of Muslims and Islam is vital for countering widespread stigmatization. This may, in turn, create opportunities for more humane policies that are fair to everyone regardless of their faith."

The report by the political scientists is an extract from their book published this year – 'Covering Muslims: American Newspapers in Comparative Perspective' – which contains their full work on the topic and the entirety of the study.

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