Media portrayals of Muslims, public opinion linked in study

Monday, January 11, 2016 - 8:34pm

Recent University studies suggest individuals who identify as non-Muslim and are exposed to negative portrayals of Muslims in the media are more likely to support restrictive public policies aimed at Muslims internationally and domestically.

Communications Prof. Muniba Saleem, a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research, spearheaded the research project. The project consisted of three separate studies that displayed various mechanisms through which stereotypes, as identified by researchers in the media, can cause individuals to deem Muslims as aggressive and consequently support policies that target them.

The participants in each study all identified as non-Muslim but varied in race and gender. After being exposed to media clips that featured negative portrayals of Muslims, the participants were then polled on policies deemed by the researchers as harmful toward Muslim Americans.

In an interview, Saleem said the results of the three studies emphasize how media portrayals influence public opinion.

“This work highlights the importance of media depictions in influencing support for public policies that don’t just harm Muslims internationally, but even those who are our fellow American citizens,” she said. “This is especially important when we consider that most Americans have little to no direct contact with Muslims and often rely on media to get information about Muslims.”

Specifically, after exposure to news stories where Muslims were described as terrorists, participants correspondingly showed support for military actions in Muslim countries to reduce the influence of Islam. They also supported actions such as secretly monitoring Muslim Americans without their consent, not allowing them the right to vote and requiring them to go through separate, more scrutinized airport security lines.

"These perceptions, in turn, can create hostile expectations and anger by some non-Muslims, who may exhibit aggressive behaviors," Saleem said.

However, she noted that the study also found that support for such policies is significantly reduced when participants were exposed to news that portrayed Muslims in a neutral or positive light.

“If media representation of Muslims was more balanced and positive, we would not see such negative attitudes towards Muslims and support for policies that harm them,” she said.

Although the research was useful in showing short-term effects, Saleem said she hopes to carry out research that examines the long-term effects of terrorism news on attitudes toward Muslims.

Law student Omar El-Halwagi, co-president of the Muslim Law Students Association at the University, said though the study shows how the media can influence the opinions of non-Muslim Americans, encouraging non-muslim support of anti-Muslim policies, he hopes more research will show how Muslims, particularly Muslim students, are impacted.

“When a presidential candidate’s poll numbers increase when he espouses an Islamophobic stance, it makes Muslim students here have to focus on more just their contracts reading,” El-Halwagi said. “Feeling like you are perceived and treated like you do not belong on a national level, particularly when the discourse is so vitriolic, has damaging effects on students.”

Law student Sarah Alsaden, treasurer of the Muslim Law Students Association, said since the media has a considerable impact in portraying minorities, it is important for it to maintain a neutral light when covering terrorism news.

Alsaden added that she believes the climate at the University toward Muslim students could be further improved if students listened more to how their peers felt about being represented negatively in the media.

“The media does put a focus on labelling Muslims as violent, which isn’t the same for other races or religions,” Alsaden said. “It is important that these harmful stereotypes are removed and we all become allies.”

Saleem said her team is currently working to publish longitudinal data about how reliance on media for information affect non-Muslims’ views toward Muslims over the course of three months.