United States: Media Bias and the anti-Islam Message
The general failure of media to tell the full story of the Innocence of Muslims controversy may in part be explained by the findings of a survey published soon afterwards which suggests that media in the United States routinely give undue prominence to anti-Islam messages.
The work by Christopher Bail, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan finds that since the terror attacks on New York and Washington the media are more likely to publicise the views and actions of minority groups, even where they are driven by a divisive and hate-inspired agenda. Prior to 9/11 such groups rarely figured in the news.
Bail became interested in the public discourse surrounding Islam and studied the controversies about the faith have regularly arisen since 2001, including the publicity given to Koran-burning Florida pastor Terry Jones’ and the impact of the Innocence of Muslims film.(15)
His study, published in December 2012 by the American Sociological Review, finds that anti-Muslim fringe groups are more mainstream and have increased their influence and funding since the September 11th attacks, in part thanks to their presence in the United States media.
He writes “I found that organizations with negative messages about Muslims captivated the mass media after the September 11 attacks, even though the vast majority of civil society organisations depict Muslims as peaceful, contributing members of American society.
As a result, he says, public condemnations of terrorism by Muslims have receive little media attention, but organisations spreading negative messages continue to stoke public fears that Muslims are secretly plotting to overthrow the American government. “They are now so much a part of the mainstream that they have been able to recast genuinely mainstream Muslim organizations as radicals,” he told the Huffington Post.(16)
His study reveals that media-savvy extremists, representing a tiny sector of non-governmental organisations, captivate the media with their news releases, leading to major news coverage, which in turn gives them legitimacy, attracts donations and connects the groups to powerful conservative think tanks.(17)
“I’m not saying the media had a direct role in facilitating these connections,” says Bail, “but news- paper and television coverage of fringe groups with messages seeking to inspire anti-Muslim and Islamic fear and anger were given increased visibility creating the misperception they were mainstream organizations.”
As a result, he says, media contribute to helping these organisations to secure funding and to build social networks that they may not been able to do otherwise. By contrast, his study reveals that moderate groups, which make up the vast majority of civil society Muslim organisations are much less represented in news reports.
“We learned that American media almost completely ignored public condemnations of terrorist events by prominent Muslim organisations in the United States,” he said. “Inattention to these condemnations, combined with the emotional warnings of anti- fringe organisations, has created a very distorted representation of the community of advocacy organisations, think tanks, and religious groups competing to shape the representation of Islam in the American public sphere.”(18)