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Representation of Muslims and Islam in Western Media Research Paper

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Updated: Sep 4th, 2022

Abstract

This research aims to explore the differences in the representation of Muslims and Islam in cable news channels. The selected media companies are Fox News and CNN, from which several articles have been selected for discourse analysis. The research results indicate that there are visible differences in the reporting of the Christchurch terror attack. Fox News prefers to label the incident a mass shooting while CNN views it as a terrorist attack. Therefore, it can be concluded that even when terror attacks are undertaken by non-Muslims, some media new media channels will still make references to Islamic terrorism and fail to acknowledge the acts of non-Muslims are terrorist.

Introduction

Islam is one of the major religions in the world and one that has sparked controversial debates in the media and other platforms. In such countries as the United States and the United Kingdom (UK), Islam has been racialized, which has resulted in hate crimes and Islamophobia. The racialization is arguably the result of how the media represents the religion in light of the several terror attacks conducted by extreme Muslim groups. The emergence of the Islamic State in 2014 could only worsen the situation as manifested by the extensive reporting on their activities in news media outlets (Sikorski et al., 2021). Several researchers have used discourse analysis to explore differences in reporting terror incidences and how the media houses represent Islam.

However, there is a need to examine how hate crimes and terror attacks against Islam are depicted in the same media. The Christchurch shooting in New Zealand makes a perfect case study. The focus could be on how the attacker is portrayed in comparison to Muslim terror attacks. However, considering that the attack was the result of hate sentiments, it would be prudent to explore whether the media perceives Islam and Muslims differently as a result of the attack.

Research Objective

The objective of this research is to examine whether there are noticeable differences in the representation of Islam between Fox News and CNN during the Christchurch terror attack in New Zealand. The rationale is that these two media houses are among the largest in the world and their geographic outreach goes beyond national borders. Additionally, the two news media companies extensively covered the incidence being investigated, which should allow room for a discourse analysis exploring the differences in how they represent Muslims and Islam.

Research Question

Is there a noticeable difference in how cable news channels represent and portray Islam and the Muslim community during Christchurch terrorist attack?

Literature Review

Islamic representation in the news media is a controversial subject among researchers and other individuals because it depicts some people as having hatred towards a particular religion and its followers. Many scholars have established that there exists bias and stereotypes in how the news media represents Muslims and Islam. According to Rahman and Qamar (2017), the biases and stereotypes are created by the media through their role as a distributor of ideology. Islamophobia is deemed as the result of how Muslims and Islam are framed in the international media. The stories and images shared through the media can have a lasting effect on how society views a group of people. Negative pictures of Muslim and Islam have been rampant as claimed by Rahman and Qamar (2017). The main perception created is that Muslims are terrorists and extremists who should not be welcomed in modern societies. Today, this is an image that has stuck with Islam and that has facilitated the negative attitude with which the Muslim community received.

The western media is often blamed for creating negative perceptions of Muslim and Islam. Such scholars as Saleem et al. (2021) also acknowledge that the perception of any religion, nation, and society is built through media representations. A case study of Fox News is presented by Saleem et al. (2021) who express that Islam is fighting a war of survival due to the media representations. Fox News has been portrayed as a media house that that labels Islam as a religion of extremism. Additionally, some reporters have even been quoted expressing that they are tired of the claims that Islam is a peaceful religion. With such words used publicly in the media, it is easy to understand that the public will pick up both the expressions and sentiments that will manifest themselves in hatred and Islamophobia. Some of the most used words and expressions in Fox News include terrorists, Jihadis, and extremists. Overuse of these terminologies during news coverage of incidences involving Islam and Muslims will ultimately create an impression that Islam is indeed associated with terrorism and extremism.

Media identities are another concept that has been studied in the light of the representation of Muslims. The study by Petersen (2016)also expressed that the media frames Islam negatively, which results in the creation of negative and infamous identities. The several terrorist and criminal incidences can be seen as the baseline for the media images. However, the news media fails to acknowledge or accept that the actions of a few individuals should not be a reflection of the entire religion or community. The activities of the Islamic State have had a particularly strong influence on the creation of these media identities. The argument is that the masses have been bombarded with reporting that depicts the acts of the Islamic State as those of Muslims. The true consequences of the mediation of Islam are manifested in the social consequences of the negative reporting. According to Petersen (2016), the continued construction of Muslim identity creates social consciousness that is embraced by the public. The main outcome is that people cannot differentiate between Muslims and terrorists. The militant groups can be seen as having the most devastating effect on the plight of Muslim identity.

The patterns of representation have been studied by several scholars, often focusing on the words and images created by the media. A key point to note is that all media, including digital and social media, plays almost a similar role in the portrayal of Muslims and Islam. A summary of the findings in research by Tornberg and Tonberg (2016) reveals that Muslims have been depicted s a homogenous outgroup that is embroiled in violence, conflict, and extremism. Additionally, Muslims are shown to be irrational and antiquated, features that are deemed to threaten democracy and liberal values. The media has amplified this perception, especially the western cable news channels. Anti-Muslim and anti-Islamic sentiments in social media began before the age of digital growth, which means that the traditional media played the most critical role in how the Muslim community is perceived today. Negative bias seems to be the most recurrent theme among scholars on this subject, which can be used to insinuate that the reporters can be labelled as stereotypical towards Islam.

Islamophobia and hate crimes against Muslims have resulted in many groups of Muslims creating organizations to fight this media bias. However, the reception of such groups can surmise how much the bias has already taken root. According to Considine (2017), the Islamic groups in such countries as the United States cite incidences, including hate crimes and racial profiling, as evidence of racism against the community. However, some authors have expressed that Islamophobia does not exist and that the activities of the advocacy groups are the result of paranoia and politically motivated imagination. Additionally, their efforts have been labelled as a siege mentality hoping to create a sense of victimhood and to oppose the legitimate criticism. Such sentiments can be interpreted to mean that some people have refused to believe that the issues of Islamophobia and hate crimes are real because the media representation of this community is perceived as legitimate.

From the literature examined above, it can be summarized that the western media has traditionally tarnished the identities of Islam as a religion. In many countries, Muslims are perceived as aggressive and extremist, portrayals that have has a devastating effect on the community. Therefore, hate crimes and islamophobia can all be blamed on the media. The emergence of social media, as expressed by Tornberg and Tonberg (2016), has only served to amplify these biases. It is important to notice that the literature generally accuses the western media without special attention to how different media report incidences. Therefore, a new stream of research can be developed to explore the contrasting ways in which various media channels approach the same incidences. Such an effort should inform on which companies are biased and which can be regarded as neutral or subtle towards Muslims.

Methodology

Research Approach

This research adopts a critical discourse analysis approach to answer the research question. Critical discourse analysis (CDA) has been described by Waugh et al. (2016) as problem-oriented interdisciplinary research focusing on a variety of approaches, each with a different research agenda and methods. From this definition, it can be expressed that a CDA approach selects the methods and strategies depending on the nature of the research problem. One of the key features of CDA that makes favourable to social science scholars is that it helps explore the relationships between language use and consumption in different contexts. In this research, the subject under investigation is the media stereotypes against Islam and the language used by media channels in the context of terror activities. Discourse tends to perpetuate social patterns, including discrimination, dehumanization, domination, exploitation, and naturalization. A discourse analysis of media representation should help explain the discrimination against Muslims in the media.

Research Design

A case study research is used in this study as manifested by the use of two media companies. A case study design is used to offer an in-depth analysis of a single case or subject. The narrow focus is often preferable when more details are needed regarding the research problem. However, a comparative analysis can also be visible in this study because two case subjects are used. The main idea is that only a small subset of the population is used in research to allow the researcher to gather as much information as possible.

Data collection and Analysis

Data will be collected from a selection of news articles from both CNN and Fox News. The search for the articles will follow simple criteria: all the articles will be reporting the event on Christchurch terror attack. The event itself and the following news reports, including sentencing, will be considered. Five articles from each media channel will be used for this research. Data analysis will follow a critical discourse and a comparative analysis, which means that the language used in both articles and specific words and the context of their use will be established. Simple descriptive statistics will explain the number of times each keyword is used for the foundation of the analysis.

Ethical issues

This research does not use primary data collected from individuals or research subjects. Therefore, there are few ethical considerations for the researcher. However, the use of articles published by other authors may require proper acknowledgements and citations. Additionally, the nature of the current research requires the scholar to be neutral and to avoid any biases in the analysis of the text and language used in the articles selected for the research.

Results and Discussion

Descriptive Statistics

Terminology No. of Times used in Fox News No. of Times used in CNN
Gunman 14 21
Extremist 12 7
White supremacist/supremacy 5 3
Terrorist 7 23
Terror attack 3 47
Massacre 4 4
Mass shooting 0 10
Far-right 0 7
Muslim extremism 1 0
Muslim gunman 1 0

Table 1: Simple descriptive statistics (Developed using MS Word).

Summary of Findings

Table 1 summarizes the keywords and terminologies often used in the media to describe such incidences as the Christchurch mass shootings. The words and the context in which they are used can help determine how each media channel perceives Muslims. The most noticeable aspect of the reports is the tendency to use the same words used to describe similar attacks conducted by Muslim extremists. Fox News seems to use these terms sparingly and preferred to label the attacker as a gunman as opposed to a terrorist. The term white supremacist or supremacy has also been used more times in Fox news, even though the difference is not big enough to have any significant implication. However, the limited use of extreme terms to describe the terror attack and largely using terrorist attacks to refer to those conducted by Muslim extremists indicate a potential bias in the way Fox News perceives Muslims.

The case of CNN news is different because the articles used have expressly stated that the act was a terrorist attack. The term “terror attack” has been used 47 times in the CNN articles as compared to only 3 times used in Fox News. The extensive use of such terminology as a mass shooting, far-right, and terrorist indicates that CNN is willing to offer an unbiased description of both the event and the perpetrator. However, there is also the use of the term gunman as often featured in attacks conducted by non-Muslims, especially in the United States. Regardless of the motive and nature of the incident, the CNN News channel has shown willingness to rebuke all acts of mass killing and to label them as terrorism.

Lastly, it is important to acknowledge that since the Christchurch terror attack was not conducted by a Muslim, it is difficult to use its reporting as the basis for this discourse analysis. The argument is that the reporting does not offer adequate comparisons between reporting Muslim- and non-Muslim-perpetrated activities, in which case biases could have emerged better. However, the current analysis used the information obtained in the literature review to back the assumption that the extreme terminologies and descriptions are often used by western media to report Muslim-related incidences. Therefore, the extent to which each of the channels uses the expressions reveal their attitudes towards Muslims and Islam.

Discussion

The literature review section has shed some light on how the western media represents Islam and the Muslim community. The reporting of terrorist incidences reveals that the media portrays Muslims as extremists who threaten liberal values and democracy. Additionally, the efforts of Muslim advocacy groups to help reverse this media identity are hardly successful because the public has already adopted the negative view. The research findings can support this literature, especially considering how the Christchurch attack was reported. It has been expressed that one media channel, Fox News, was relatively subtle with terminologies and was reluctant to label the incident and the perpetrator as a terrorist. The mention of the words terrorists in the articles explored is majorly used to refer to Muslims, but the gunman was the keyword in these news reports. Therefore, it can be argued that the acts of non-Muslims are not perceived the same way as those of Muslims.

The purpose of the research was to explore any differences in the representation of Islam and Muslims in the reporting of the Christchurch attack. The research findings indicate that there was a significant difference in how CNN and Fox News labelled the incidence. It can be observed that CNN and its reporters are all in agreement that the action of the attacker was terrorist, which means that there are no reserves for non-Muslim terrorists. The discourse analysis explores the language and its context and discovers that terrorism for Fox News is mostly in connection with Muslims and Islam. For CNN, the Christchurch or other mass shootings conducted by any person of any religion are all perceived the same way: as terror activities. Therefore, one media channel is shown to be biased and stereotypical towards Muslims while the other is neutral. It has also been acknowledged that the Christchurch terror attack may not be the best case study for this discourse analysis because it involves a non-Muslim attacker. However, the analysis has successfully outlined the key differences in how Muslims are represented in these news media.

Conclusion

This research aimed to address the question of whether there are visible differences in how Muslims and Islam are represented in two news media channels. The discourse analysis conducted reveals that even when the terrorist attacks are conducted by non-Muslims, references to Muslim extremism are still prevalent in the reporting of the incidences. However, there are visible differences between Fox News and CNN because the former hardly acknowledges that the Christchurch shooting was an act of terrorism while the latter acknowledges this fact. The research supports the available literature that the media identities created regarding Muslims have been negative and the negativity has been perpetuated by the recurrent reporting of terrorist incidences. The words, phrases and expressions majorly used in reporting terror activities by Muslim extremists differ from those of non-Muslim groups, including white supremacists.

References

Considine, C. (2017). Religions, 8(9), 1-19. Web.

Petersen, K. (2016). Mediating Islam: Representation and Muslim identity. Journal of Religion & Society, 113-123. Web.

Rahman, S., & Qamar, A. (2017). Islam Phobia and Media: The Framing of Muslims and Islam in International Media. Journal of Peace Development & Communication, 1(2), 1-24. Web.

Saleem, N., Chaudhary, M., & Ashfaq, F. (2021). Global Mass Communication Review, 1, 108-116. Web.

Sikorski, C., Matthes, J., & Schmuck, D. (2021). Communication Research, 48(2), 203-232. Web.

Tornberg, A., & Tonberg, P. (2016). Discourse, Context & Media, 13, 132-142. Web.

Waugh, L., Catalano, T., Al Masaeed, K., Do, T., & Renigar, P. (2016). Critical discourse analysis: Definition, approaches, relation to pragmatics, critique, and trends. In A. Capone, & J. Mey, Interdisciplinary studies in pragmatics, culture and society (pp. 71-136). Springer.

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