Muslims in the media:

Towards more tolerance and diversity

Bias in the News: Reporting Terrorism

Bias against Muslims is rarely in full view, but it often seeps into media coverage of major news events in which Muslims or Islam are implicated. Two key stories of the past decade in which that has happened concern media coverage of migration and acts of terrorism.

Over the past few years, the media coverage of these stories has often been linked by events. Following the terror attacks in Paris, on 13 November 2015, for instance, the positive coverage of migration in Germany and other countries became more muted. Just two weeks later, on 25 November, the daily newspaper Die Welt announced in one headline that “terrorism and refugees will be the end of our high standard of living.”[1] More and more, refugees were blamed for both the increasing threat of terrorism and actual attacks, and they were subject to blanket condemnation.

In summer 2016 three terrorist attacks in Germany took place in quick succession that intensified debate over domestic security and refugees. Domestic security and refugees were regularly discussed as two sides of the same coin, even when there was no connection – as in the case of the mass shooting in Munich, where the killer had grown up in Germany and had leanings towards right-wing extremism. A Bild headline asked: “After Bloody Week in Germany, How Are Refugees Monitored?” Die Welt wrote: “Bavaria Cracks Down on Violent Refugees.” The news channel n-tv titled one report in more or less neutral terms: “Terror, Extremism, Refugees: What Germans Fear”; but the report itself only reinforced a feeling that every refugee, many of them from a Muslim background, was a potential criminal.

Two views dominate the discussion about the portrayal of Muslims in German media. On the one hand, we find several experts like Kai Hafez, Professor for International and comparative communication studies at the University of Erfurt who highlights the problem of well-entrenched bias in Germany society and German media against Muslims.

In his article in Die Zeit, February 21, 2017, Hafez points out that old but well-entrenched prejudices dating back centuries continue to colour media coverage in Europe. Islam is seen as a threat, the popular myth of the clash of cultures between the West and the Orient still informs the choices for pictures (the Koran is often shown on a black background) and coverage.

The situation in Germany shows how – even if the political leaders openly proclaim that “Islam is part of Germany” – right-wing populist parties can use the frustration between former CDU/CSU voters who don’t feel they are sufficiently represented in the media and feel their voices are not being heard to their advantage.

At the same time, as illustrated by German n-tv the linking of terrorism and migration in the way media report is a common feature of the findings of recent reports on how media have covered stories that often have a direct impact on how Muslims are perceived in the European communities in which they live. [2]

These German examples illustrate how the increase in terrorist activity linked to Islamic groups over the past decade has seen the story of terrorism increasingly told with a media bias. Media have rightly reported on how terrorism in the name of Islam by violent extremists has its roots in distorted interpretations of jihad and Islamic teaching, but it has often led to narratives that implicate Muslims in general. Research on the impact of this on community relations is limited, but it cannot be ignored that the stress given to the linking of terrorism with the Muslim community by media appears to be disproportionate.

According to research carried out in the United States terror attacks carried out by Muslims receive more than five times as much media coverage as those carried out by non-Muslims. Analysis of all terrorist attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 found there was a 449 per cent increase in media attention when the perpetrator was Muslim. Muslims committed just 12.4 per cent of attacks during the period studied but received 41.4 per cent of news coverage, the survey found. The authors said the finding suggests the media is making people disproportionately fearful of Muslim terrorists.[3]

Journalists may fall into the temptation to replay rumour, misinformation and speculation when they appear to confirm well-established stereotypes. Bigoted opinion and rumour-mongering, particularly after terrorist attacks can fuel fear, can stigmatise communities, and distort reality. It was this potentially catastrophic development in the response of social media after the Paris terror attacks on 13 November 2015 that prompted Le Monde to remind its readers that the role of journalism is an antidote to the poison of lies and prejudice. [4]

Media have to be aware that the public is interested in the truth; they do look for reliable information, and they expect to find it in trusted brands of journalism. That is why journalists and media, as part of their duty to keep emotions in check, have to put in place systems to avoid retransmitting or retweeting unverified information. As the BBC says in its editorial guidelines, accuracy is more important than speed.

In his excellent work Terrorism and the Media, where many of these issues are set out in detail, Jean-Paul Marthoz gives some simple but essential advice: when covering terrorism, keep to the facts, adopt a tone that is reassuring for the community and avoid inciting panic or fear or division within society.[5]

This is of critical importance not least because when people are fearful, they become vulnerable to groups or politics that feed on ignorance and fears of ordinary people, some of whom who may be goaded into acts of hate and revenge against innocent and peaceful minorities who are guilty of nothing more than sharing the same faith or cultural background as terrorists.

The threats that society faces must be handled sensitively without resorting to sensationalism, or exaggeration or without direction from self-interested politicians who may wish to exploit fear and uncertainty within society at large.

In reporting terrorism, media have to guard against reporting that targets a specific audience, without consideration of the impact on other sections of the community that might be affected. Media tend to focus on the concerns of society, but they have to be alert to the importance of diversity and the need to be inclusive, bringing the authentic voice of minorities including Muslims into play.

Terrorism can target a specific community and claim adherence to a specific group in society, media should avoid framing their stories in a way that accepts this narrative.

Journalists should also recognise how key players use each other’s rhetoric to reinforce their common narrative that “a final battle between the west and Islam is inevitable”. Far-right political groups celebrate terrorism as a victory for their narrative of “all Muslims are terrorists”, while jihadists rejoice at the election of far-right politicians. Ideas of anti-Muslim bias carried into social media echo chambers can quickly become hateful rhetoric that quickly turns into crime and calls for violence. Some far-right online pages have become melting pots for racist, anti-Muslim and anti-Semitic hate speech. These virtual meeting points enable far-right activists to spread hyper-partisan and alternative news.

Media have to be aware of this common link and to prevent radicalisation, hate crimes and violent extremism, journalists need to avoid contributing to “us against them” narratives and instead focus on stories that expose extremist propaganda and point to civil society efforts that replace binary world views with credible alternatives to create viable bridges of communication between communities.

One of the biggest challenges facing news journalists reporting on Islamic and Muslim affairs is the correct use of terminology to maintain accuracy and objectivity. The examples of media coverage in this report highlight the way in which terms such as ‘Jihadist’, ‘terrorism’ and ‘Islamic extremism’ are often used indiscriminately without clear definition.

Jean-Paul Marthoz argues that the terms terrorism and terrorist are always controversial[6]. He quotes Susan Moeller, author of Packaging Terrorism, who offers three criteria in her characterisation of terrorism: the deliberate targeting of civilians; the goal, beyond the victims, of affecting public opinion as broadly as possible and the intention to create a psychological impact that is greater than the physical damage caused. [7]

Another question arises when trying to describe the perpetrators of such acts. Jean-Paul Marthoz asks whether a group is defined by its actions or its ideology.   He says: ‘Words largely choose their side, as when some speak of ‘assassins’ and others of ‘martyrs’, of an ‘incursion’ or an ‘invasion’, an ‘attack’ or ‘reprisals’. For example, the term ‘jihadist’ is increasingly used instead of ‘Islamic terrorist’ because the latter is seen as stigmatising the whole of Islam.

However, ‘jihadist’ is itself a controversial term in that it creates a false link between the act of terrorism and the Quran. In fact, it is claimed that the term is banned from AlJazeera’s style guide because strictly speaking, jihad means an inner spiritual struggle, not a holy war. It is not by tradition a negative term. It also means the struggle to defend Islam against things challenging it.[8]

[1] https://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article149231373/Terror-und-Fluechtlinge-werden-uns-Wohlstand-kosten.html

[2] http://www.n-tv.de/panorama/Davor-fuerchten-sich-die-Deutschen-article18176386.html

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world-0/terror-attacks-media-coverage-muslim-islamist-white-racism-islamophobia-study-georgia-state-a7820726.html

[4] http://www.lemonde.fr/les-decodeurs/article/2015/11/20/informer-c-est-aussi-dementir- les-rumeurs_4813894_4355770.html

[5] Terrorism and the Media, Jean-Paul Marthoz (UNESCO, 2017)

[6] Terrorism and the Media, Jean-Paul Marthoz (UNESCO, 2017)

[7] Susan D. Moeller, Packaging Terrorism: Co-opting the news for politics and profit, Wiley- Blackwell, 2007

[8] Terrorism and the Media, Jean-Paul Marthoz (UNESCO, 2017)

Muslims in the Media: Towards More Tolerance and Diversity

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Tagged with: Aidan White, bias, Hate Speech | Hate Spin, Islam | Islamaphobia, Jean-Paul Marthoz, Media and migration | Reporting on refugees | Journalism and the "refugee crisis", racism, religion, Terrorism | Mass shootings | Massacres, UNESCO