Islamophobia in Western Media: Spreading from the West to Other Parts of the World?

November 21, 2019

Research has shown that Western media coverage of terrorism is often based on Islamophobic assumptions.

Islamophobia in Western media is increasingly spreading to other parts of the world, which rely on Western news outlets, yet have little everyday exposure to Muslims.

The Power of the Press

Since the late 1700s, news media and the press have been considered some of the most important sources of power, being referred to as the “fourth estate” or “fourth power”.

The term was derived from the traditional European concept of the three estates of society: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners.

The term acknowledges the media’s capacity of advocacy, but also its ability to frame political issues.

The media’s most significant role is agenda-setting – the ability to choose what issues become part of public discourse.

This makes the media responsible and powerful enough to construct and present certain images to the public. According to agenda-setting theory, the press does not reflect reality as it is, but it does filter and shape events towards their own view.

As Bernard Cohen famously said, “the press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about”.

That is why it is important for news media to be transparent and to deliver the best sources of information.

Islamophobia in Western Media’s Coverage of Terrorism

Many studies have suggested that, since 9/11, the amount of Western media outlets that communicate content containing Islamophobia has increased considerably, especially in their reports on terrorism.

Research has shown an existing prejudice against Muslims from Western news organisations, and that media coverage is often framed in a negative light.

Muslims are “regularly depicted as out-group extremists and are linked to terrorist acts in terrorism news”.  

A recent study by the University of Alabama showed that in the US, terrorism attacks by Muslim Extremists receive 357% more press attention than any other non-Muslim terrorist attack.

The Situation in the UK

In the UK, there are many examples of news headlines and coverage that could potentially instil fear and the possibility of ‘othering’ in readers.

Mainstream newspapers such as the Daily Express, The Sun and The Times have been authors of offensive headlines, including “Ramadan A Ding-Dong”, “Christianity under Attack”, “Muslims ‘silent on terror’”, “Britain’s Goes Halal…but Nobody Tells Public”, and others.

The editor-in-chief of the Daily Express actually recognised that many of the stories published in the newspaper contributed to an “Islamophobic sentiment” in the media.

While these are some of the most obvious examples, instances of Islamophobia also exist in other parts of the media and entertainment, including newspapers, radio, TV and films.

Comparing the Coverage of Radical Muslim and White Supremacists’ Attacks

If we look into the current international context, the past year has been marked by a series of terrorist attacks, notably White Supremacists and radical Muslims that have shocked the world. News coverage of Christchurch, Sri Lanka, El Paso and the recent attack in Halle, Germany, are some examples of how the media has reported on terrorism.

A recent study by Signal AI where 200,000 articles of 11 attacks were analysed in 80 different languages, found that Islamic State (ISIS)-inspired attackers are three times more likely to be described as “terrorists” than far-right and White Supremacist attackers.

The analysis showed that radical Muslims were called “terrorists” in 78% of the articles analysed, but extreme-right attackers were only called “terrorists” in 27% of the news coverage.

The Spread of Islamophobia to Non-Western, majority-Christian Countries

So far, this blog post has focused on “Western” countries, including Northern America, Europe and Australia.

However, there is evidence that Islamophobia could potentially begin to spread to other countries that are influenced by the West.

For my Masters Dissertation, I researched how the Chilean press is influenced by Western Media in the communication of terrorism.

As a country where Catholicism is the predominant religion and the Muslim population is very small (0.04%), it is not surprising that Chileans do not know much about Islam.

Chilean media generally base their own coverage on international information from mainstream Western media (such as the BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, CNN, El Pais, etc.) or news agencies (Reuters, AF, France Presse, AFP). Therefore, it is likely that if any of these sources of information include content that transmits any form of Islamophobia, Chilean news media could reproduce the same representation of the Muslim community.

It therefore seems like Islamophobia in the media of the West, could spread to non-Western countries.

Control, Bias and Fear

It would appear that if radical Muslims are portrayed significantly more often as terrorists than other attackers, the public can potentially also adopt a negative opinion of Islam.

There are many studies that have shown that news about terrorism can provoke a sense of fear in individuals.

However, the level of fear can vary “depending on the specific information provided or the way terrorism news are presented”.

This is why it is so important for news media and agencies to have the correct tools and processes in place, in order to avoid creating stereotypes or promoting fear of a specific community.

Elizabeth Poole for example, states that the absence of ‘normal’ articles  about Muslims in their every-day life results in a “consistently narrow framework of representation”. Because of this framing,

Poole explains that in the UK, newspapers construct social meaning and promote a ‘way of seeing’ Islam to readers.

Including other communities like the Muslim population in every-day media coverage can escape that negative framing.

Lack of everyday exposure

During my research, the articles that I studied failed to explain or contextualise that there is a large proportion of Muslims who are not involved in terrorism.

According to Von Sikorski, this point is vital, because failing to do so can influence readers’ perceptions, leading them to believe that all Muslims are terrorists.

Chile is a country with a small Muslim community, where the lack of everyday exposure and communication with Muslims, together with constant media representation of Islam as a “terrorist religion”, can change the attitude of the audience.

Western Responsibility

The Chilean press (or any non-Western news media) have an ethical responsibility to invest in and train their journalists on knowledge about terrorism.

This could help stereotypes being reproduced in the same way that they are in the Western world.

It is also a statement to the importance of ethical and professional communication, and that Western media have an even bigger responsibility to deliver facts and not stereotypes. Because not only are they communicating with people in the West, but also with the rest of the world.

Written by Gabriela Hagedorn

Marketing & Communications Intern