Launch a new “Media Beacon Project” to counter misleading portrayals of American Muslims

Anti-Muslim sentiment and bigotry are soaring to frightening levels in America, along with harassment, bullying, and death threats against ordinary American Muslims. The phenomenon is driven by a complex multitude of reasons, but one of the key factors is that most people in America say they don’t interact with fellow Americans who happen to practice the Muslim faith. In fact, 7 in 10 reported that “they have seldom or even never had a conversation with anyone who is Muslim in the past year.”

When that resulting void instead gets filled with perceptions shaped by the news and other media portrayals of Muslims, we’ve got a problem. It leads to, for example, few in the public knowing that Muslim communities in America and overseas do in fact very vocally condemn and reject Daesh/ISIS/ISIL.

Here’s the Bridge Initiative at Georgetown University explaining the results of one media analysis:

In the years after 9/11, MediaTenor examined 2.6 million Western news stories from 10 American, British and German outlets, and found that the media’s coverage of Islam has rarely, if ever, been positive. The average tone of coverage, which has always been poor, continued to worsen in the decade after 9/11. Most coverage depicted Islam, Muslims, and Muslim organizations as a source of violence and a security risk, but seldom dealt with the lives of ordinary Muslims. In 2014, negative coverage of Islam reached an all-time high, as ISIS gained a foothold in Iraq and in American news headlines.

As this AlterNet piece describes, the slant in coverage isn’t confined to conservative fringe outlets and publications. Even analysis of The New York Times produced troubling findings:

The November 2015 416 Labs report states that there is a “significant bias” against Islam and Muslims in the New York Times that is likely to lead the average reader to “assign collective responsibility to Islam/Muslims for the violent actions of a few.”

“When we went into it we didn’t think it would be surprising if Islam was one of the most negatively portrayed topics in the NYT,” says co-author Usaid Siddiqui. “What did really surprise us was that compared with something as inherently negative as cancer, Islam still tends to be more negative.”

The dynamics behind these results include subtle and unintended ones, as explained to LiveScience by one media researcher who conducted a separate study:

For example, Muslim organizations put out many messages condemning terrorism, in response to nearly any incident, Bail said. But these press releases were usually dispassionate or mournful, and they received little media coverage.

But Muslim groups often put out angry and emotional messages in response to cases of discrimination against Muslims. These messages got more media attention. To the newspaper-reading and TV-watching public, the impression is that Muslims care little about condemning terrorism and are over-sensitive to Islamophobia, Bail said.

…The “fringe effect” of rare emotional messages getting the most attention also boosts anti-Muslim groups who put out frequent angry press releases.

There is not a single silver bullet solution to the problem, but there are positive steps that journalists, media watchdogs, and other stakeholders could try—such as pushing for greater diversity and inclusion of American Muslims in newsrooms.

One action that even lay people with a Twitter account—and the willingness to use it to advance social change—could take is to tweet at journalists and ask them to look at headlines and articles that correct false and harmful myths. (Hence the suggested project name: a beacon is a source of light signaling people to look at it.)

Andrew Slack, founder of the Harry Potter Alliance and a Civic Hall fellow, notes that one could start even more locally and share myth-busting news items with family members during casual conversation. Here are some sample headlines, for example: “How Muslim Groups, Scholars Have Been Fighting ISIS” and “U.S. officials say American Muslims do report extremist threats.”

Yes, these famous people are all Muslim. Credit: CBS News.

Yes, these famous people are all Muslim. Credit: CBS News.

Correcting misperceptions and challenging stereotypes can and do help, an effort bolstered by research like this study on Hispanic immigrants that showed “anti-Latino bias disappeared once our hypothetical immigrant could speak English and hold a job.” In the overall work to combat Islamophobia, that’s all the more reason to try crowding out destructive media narratives with constructive ones.