Creating fear: How American news outlets perpetuate Islamphobia

By Omeed Alidadi
Boston College

Since the start of the 21st century, negative attitudes and explicit forms of racism towards members of the Islamic faith have become increasingly apparent throughout the world.

According to a 2009 report by the Council on American-Islamic Relations, civil rights violations targeting Muslims at religious institutions, schools, and workplaces have escalated. For instance, while in 2007 there were 153 reported cases of discrimination in schools, the number rose to 183 in 2008.  Likewise, a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans held more unfavorable views of the Islamic faith in 2010 than in 2005. Scholars of media studies, including British sociologist Christopher Allen, maintain that news agencies are largely responsible for propagating anti-Islamic or Islamophobic beliefs in the minds of their audiences. Although Allen acknowledges that the media is not the sole transmitter of Islamophobia, he argues “It is the most accessible and indiscriminate disseminator of such ideas in our global environment.” In the past decade, news agencies such as Fox News and CNN have tended to frame their news stories on terrorism in a way that has engendered stereotypes and instances of prejudice towards the Arab world. This, in turn, completely distorts the image of the Islamic faith. However, one may argue that terrorist events, such as the recent Paris attacks by the Islamic State, naturally fuel anti-Islamic rhetoric in the media. Nevertheless, the ways in which news agencies cover their stories on the Muslim community have been the most significant source of Islamophobia. A close examination of the origins of Islamophobia, as well as the portrayal of media coverage on Muslim communities in both Europe and the United States will help support this view.

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Historically, many scholars trace early signs of anti-Islamic rhetoric to the Middle Ages, when Pope Urban II ordered the First Crusade against the Seljuk Turks in 1095. As Islam spread and Muslims began to populate North Africa and Spain, European rulers responded with calls to defend the Christian faith. Endless territorial and political competitions ensued between Muslims and Christians in this era, which set the stage for more hostile relations in the centuries thereafter.

In recent years, however, the word Islamophobia gained much attention through a groundbreaking study conducted by the British think tank, Runnymede Trust in 1997. According to its report, Islamophobia: A Challenge For Us All, widespread discrimination towards Muslims permeated in all areas of Western society. It states, “Islamophobic discourse, sometimes blatant but frequently coded and subtle, is [now] part of everyday life in modern Britain.” In addition, the report writes, “In the last twenty years…the dislike  [of Islam and Muslims] has become more explicit, more extreme and more dangerous.” This clearly demonstrates that anti-Islamic attitudes existed in the West. More importantly, the report explains how Islamophobia may enter the public sphere. In addition to world events, the think tank argues that the media can reinforce Islamophobia—by covering news stories in a manner that is distorted, biased, and purely negative.

There is evidence to suggest that the September 11, 2001 terror attacks served as a major catalyst for the spread of Islamophobia. For example, a study conducted by Dr. Lorraine P. Sheridan of the University of Leicester reveals that the 9/11 terror attacks intensified stereotypes and discrimination towards Muslims living in the United Kingdom. In her 2006 experiment, “Islamophobia Pre—and Post—September 11th, 2001, which contained a sample size of 222 British Muslims, Sheridan observed that her subjects experienced a 82.6% increase in implicit or indirect forms of discrimination since the 2001 attacks. In addition, instances of overt discrimination rose by 72.3%. Similarly, a 2014 study by sociologist Becky L. Choma at Ryerson University in Canada demonstrates that viewing footage of 9/11, even 10 years after the attacks, “can have negative repercussions for Islamophobia, and sociopolitical attitudes.”

Together, these experiments suggest that Islamophobic attitudes can be shaped through world events, particularly terrorist attacks. Still, the source of this religious stigma remains unclear. How exactly do individuals acquire these anti-Islamic views, aside from simply witnessing acts of terror on the television? What prompts individuals to psychologically equate Islam with terrorism? Many academics, including Todd H. Green of Luther College, maintain that much of the rhetoric used in the Bush administration after 9/11 fostered many forms of hostility towards the Islamic community. In a broadcast to the American people, President Bush described his upcoming agenda—the War on Terror—as a “crusade” against “Islamic radicalism” and “Islamic extremists.” Consequently, this introduced a connection between Islam and violence in the minds of many Americans. This also conveyed the belief that the U.S. was at war against Islam.

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Yet, aside from the information that is provided from the government, most individuals develop anti-Islamic views by consuming the information that is disseminated by news agencies, such as Fox News and CNN. The media tends to propagate these views through a concept known as “framing.” This refers to the ways in which journalists, editors, and reporters deliberately choose to angle their news story. This process is employed most often by reporters to attract more viewers to their networks. Nevertheless, media framing reflects the biases and ideologies of individual journalists, as well as the media organization they represent.

In short (2)In a 2002 poll of Muslim Americans, 67 percent said the media grew more biased against Muslims after the attacks of 9/11, as reported by the Council on American-Islamic Relations. It seems that although media framing may be seen as an advertising tool, it often offends certain groups of people. To further explain this dilemma, scholars of media studies have associated two major themes with media framing and ‘selective’ coverage: terrorism and the oppression of women. Professor Todd H. Green of Luther College maintains that “the media’s interest in these themes [since 9/11] has increased significantly, and its reporting has fortified the widespread conviction that Islam is defined primarily in relation to violence and misogyny.” Media framing, in turn, fosters Islamophobic views by focusing solely on negative references to the religion. Thus, news outlets play a powerful role in deciding what information about the Islamic faith is consumed by their viewership.

Consider, for example, Fox News’ coverage of the plans to construct Park51, an Islamic community center in Lower Manhattan in 2010. According to Media Matters, an organization committed to monitoring conservative misinformation in the media, Fox News hosted at least 47 different guests to discuss the project from March 13, 2010 until August 12, 2012. During that period, over 75% of the guests opposed the project entirely. This demonstrates that while Fox News claims to be “fair and balanced”—as its slogan reads—the company is known to leave an impression that is clearly subjective. In other words, the company propagates a climate that is conducive to anti-Islamic hysteria.

In February 2011, Think Progress, an American political news outlet, released a study that described how Fox News manipulates language to insinuate that Muslims should be feared. Using three months’ worth of material gathered from various television programs from November 2010 to January 2011, the report demonstrated that the Fox News disproportionately used terms that reflected a negative view of Muslims—more so than the network’s competitors. For example, Think Progress notes that Fox News used the phrases “radical Islam” or “extremist Islam” 107 times in the span of three months, while CNN used them 78 times and MSNBC only 24 times. While the network used the word “jihad” 65 times, CNN used it 57 times, and MSNBC 13. This study shows how Fox News’ coverage of the Park51 project deliberately incorporates media framing—an approach that embellishes certain “radical” aspects of Islam.

FIn short (3)urthermore, research shows that media framing can be a powerful tool in shaping the views of a network’s viewership. In the case of the Fox News, the network’s purposeful use of media framing in its Park51 coverage cemented anti-Islamic sentiments in the minds of many of its viewers. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the Brookings Institution, a think tank in Washington, D.C., 60 percent of Republicans who trusted Fox News also believed that Muslims were attempting to establish Sharia law in the United States. Likewise, those who trusted Fox News were more likely to believe that Islamic values are incompatible with American values (78 percent), as opposed to those who trusted CNN, 37 percent. Therefore, it appears that those who paid attention to Fox News’ coverage on the Park51 project held stronger anti-Islamic views than those who viewed the same story on different networks. As a result of media framing, viewers of Fox News developed attitudes that were similar to that of the network’s broadcasters.

Apart from Fox News, however, there are other news networks in the U.S. that have previously deployed negative and stereotypical images of Muslims in their news stories. For example, even without substantial information or facts, the media is prone to associate domestic violence with Islamic radicalism. For instance, on April 19, 1995 a domestic terrorist attack on the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in downtown Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured 680 others. Many news stories initially hypothesized that Islamic terrorists were responsible for the attack itself. As stated in an article by the New York Post, “Knowing that the car bomb indicates Middle Eastern terrorists at work, it’s safe to assume that their goal is to promote free-floating fear a measure of anarchy, thereby disrupting American life.” In a similar manner, Georgie Annie Geyer of the Chicago Tribune proposed that the “[OKC Bombing] has every single earmark of the Islamic car-bombers of the Middle East.” Although the man behind the attacks, Timothy McVeigh, was not a Muslim, the media appeared certain that the perpetrator of the attack was, in fact, from the Middle East. Here, the media’s coverage of the Oklahoma City Bombing reveals that news analysts rush to assume that domestic terrorist attacks are always linked to Islam. For many Muslims, the media’s tendency to speculate unverified information about terror attacks is the most dangerous aspect of Islamophobia. In an interview with the college news agency UWIRE, Jamila Boudlali, a senior at the University of Minnesota, maintains that “When Muslims are involved, [the news] is often exaggerated and facts and sources are left out…I now go to multiple sources.” This demonstrates that word choice—a fundamental aspect of media framing—can propagate prejudice towards Muslims.

Examples of Islamophobia in the media can be seen in European countries, as well. In British newspapers, for example, the language used to describe Muslims has become increasingly violent in the last decade, incorporating Arabic words such as “Jihad” to represent an Islamic war against the West—although it is defined in the Quran as simply a “struggle” or “effort.” In his essay “Islamophobia in the United Kingdom,” British journalist Tahir Abbas notes that words such as “anti-integrationist” and “fundamentalist” are repeatedly employed in headlines across many British newspapers. This can include sensationalist headlines such as “Muslims Tell How to Run Our Schools” and “Muslims Plot to Kill the Pope” in England’s Daily Express in 2007 and 2010, respectively. As a result of this coverage, many English people have claimed that they have witnessed discrimination against followers of the Islamic faith. A 2015 survey conducted by the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC) claims that six out of 10 Muslims in Britain said they have seen Islamophobia directed at someone else—which is up from 4 in 10 when the survey was first conducted in 2010. Nonetheless, what is more surprising is that nearly 9 of 10 respondents in the same survey believed discrimination was driven by the way Muslims were portrayed in the media. To help explain this trend, consider the actions of many British Muslims following the November terrorist attacks in Paris. After the tragedy, British Muslims turned to social media websites such as Twitter to express their condolences for the victims of the attacks. More importantly, however, these individuals tweeted the message: “L’Islam no és terrorisme” to demonstrate that most Muslims do not endorse the actions of radical Islamist groups such as ISIS. This shows that British Muslims are consciously aware of the anti-Islamic rhetoric that is engendered by the media—which prompts them to “tweet” these messages to dissociate themselves from Islamic radicalism.   

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Despite this information, one may argue that the media is not solely responsible for propagating Islamophobic sentiments in the mass public. Take, for instance, the actions of the English Defence League (EDL), which is a far right-protest group in the United Kingdom that staunchly opposes the spread of Islam in its communities. Since 2009, the group has organized numerous hate crimes towards British-Muslims, including a famous 2010 street demonstration in the city of Leicester.

There, a group of EDL members broke police lines and shattered the windows of two halal-serving restaurants in town. The purpose of this particular EDL protest was to frighten Muslim shop owners and to prevent them from serving the needs of the Leicester community. Yet more importantly, it served as a form of propaganda for the EDL, attracting more members in the United Kingdom. In addition to the organization’s widespread presence on social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, the EDL has primarily attracted its members by leading regular rallies throughout the country. An article written by the Guardian in 2010 most accurately summarizes the growing popularity of the League. It claims that, over the course of one year, the EDL supported  “protests [that attracted] just a few hundred hardcore activists at the end of [2009] to rallies and marches which are bringing thousands of people on to the street…[against] police and local Muslim communities.” Thus, it appears that while the EDL is not a news agency, it still fosters the spread of Islamophobia in the British populace. One may then conclude that the EDL behaves in a manner that is actually similar to Fox News—through the network’s purposeful dissemination of anti-Islamic jargon to its consumers.

Islamphobia quote


While groups like the English Defence League may indeed spread Islamophobic messages to the public, traditional news agencies such as Fox News remain the largest disseminators of this religious stigma. In fact, it continues to be the most watched cable news channel in the last 13 years. An article published by The Washington Post reveals that Fox News typically averages 1.7 million viewers in the “coveted primetime arena,” compared to 536,000 for MSNBC and 535,000 for CNN. By observing these numbers, it is clear that Fox News is a very influential news network in the United States. Likewise, networks like Fox News can shape public opinion by deliberately choosing how their stories are articulated to their audiences.

In the case of Fox News, one must observe how the network strays from its commitment in being “Fair and balanced”—as its slogan reads. There is evidence to suggest that the company has a long-standing tradition of endorsing the views of their “conservative” or “right-wing” guests. According to an article published in 2013 by Media Matters, Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly provided a platform for Tommy Robinson, the former head of the English Defence League. During one of O’Reilly’s talk shows, which is known as The O’Reilly Factor, the host failed to address a string of recent EDL attacks on Muslim communities in England. In short, it appeared O’Reilly skirted the topic entirely. More importantly, O’Reilly neglected to voice the opinions of the British-Muslims themselves—those who are the primary targets of the League’s attacks. This exposes Fox News’ tendency to frame their new stories in a manner that is purely one-sided, which can discriminate against many Muslims. Therefore, while the EDL organizes rallies and marches to inculcate a fear of Islam, Fox News employs a more toxic tactic. By framing their news stories in the aforementioned manner, Fox News is able to disseminate anti-Islamic rhetoric to millions of its viewers on a daily basis.

Nevertheless, new academic research reveals how networks can adopt more balanced methods of reporting the news, which would counter the spread of Islamophobic discourse. In her 2015 work, “Countering Islamophobic Media Representations: The Potential Role of Peace Journalism,” Dr. Leticia Anderson of The University of Sydney offers useful techniques that may combat “Islamophobic representations” in the media. She writes that “peaceful journalism” as opposed to “war journalism” can “supply opportunities for readers and audiences to activate their empathetic capacities, through the humanization of actors in conflict narratives.” In sum, this would prevent the quick labeling of terrorist suspects as Muslims, which simply reinforces the stereotype that Muslims are terrorists. As Dr. Mattias Ekman from the University of Oslo notes in his article, “Online Islamophobia and the Politics of Fear: Manufacturing the Green Scare,” the media should employ more equitable language in its stories. This would involve the avoidance of words such as “radicalization” or “jihadism,” which, when overused, can only breed fear and hate towards the Islamic community.

Still, one may argue that news agencies cannot avoid this language because of the persistent terrorist attacks orchestrated by radical Islamist groups around the world. Nonetheless, news networks like Fox News and CNN often do more than report the news. By consistently framing their stories on terrorism, the media has reduced Islam to simply a religion associated with fundamentalism and extremism. However, networks can aim to frame their stories in more objective ways. This may include added efforts to monitor word choice and the inclusion of diverse perspectives from both sides of the political spectrum. Above all, the media should not be quick to assume that a suspected terrorist is a Muslim, which is often the case when a lack of information is available to reporters—as seen in the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995.

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The effects of Islamophobia are felt by Muslims and non-Muslims alike. This religious stigma has hindered the integration of Muslim minorities around the world. While countries may appear to be ethnically diverse, small portions of their populations seem to reject religious diversity and toleration altogether. In the last decade, a rising number of terrorist attacks in both the United States and abroad has engendered widespread coverage on the Islamic faith. However, this has led to unparalleled amounts of prejudice and discrimination against members of the Islamic community. In his work, The Fear of Islam, Todd H. Green examines the coverage of British Muslims in the U.K. press from 2000 to 2008. He finds that “two-thirds of stories about British Muslims invoked one of three angles: terrorism, controversial religious issues, or Muslim extremism.” This reveals that a majority of stories in the British media depicted Muslims in a very selective way. No efforts were made to humanize the Muslim people—or to acknowledge important cultural or traditional aspects of the religion. As a result, the British media reinforced the erroneous belief that Islam is entirely “unidimensional and monolithic without any internal differentiation or opinion,” as sociologist Christopher Allen notes.  

This type of reporting contradicts the British media’s efforts to maintain “journalistic objectivity,” as well as other ethical standards. By deliberately framing their stories in this manner, networks appear less like a news agency and more like a political organization—advertising their own set of ideologies to their audience. Due to the enormous size of their viewership, news networks like Fox News and CNN have the ability to shape the opinions of millions of people around the world. For this reason, the eradication of Islamophobia is dependent on the networks’ willingness to portray Islam in a more holistic and objective way.  


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