With the attacks in Paris and in California recently, all linked to Muslim terrorists, where is the line between being factual about who is committing terrorist acts and fueling anti-Muslim sentiment?
Craig Anderson, Distinguished Professor of psychology at Iowa State University, and colleagues think they can find out, by surveying college students.
According to their results, published in the journal Communication Research, there is a link between negative media stories of Muslims and support for military action and restrictions against Muslims. And since conservatives in America are mostly likely to be strong on topics like crime and military defense, they say it was entirely predictable that GOP candidates would take strong stands against terrorism.
The scholars exposed participants to news stories portraying Muslims as terrorists. In an additional study, participants were randomly assigned to watch one of three news clips, which portrayed Muslims in a negative, neutral or positive light. The negative story discussed the 2007 attempted terror attack at Fort Dix, the neutral clip looked at a high school changing football practice because of Ramadan, and the positive story featured Muslims volunteering during Christmas. Participants were questioned about their perceptions and support for military or political action.
Anderson says they expected participants who watched more Muslim-terrorist news stories and had just watched the Fort Dix news story to be more supportive of military action in Muslim countries. "That fits well with what media effects scholars have known for years," Anderson said. Some participants expressed for restricting the freedoms of Muslim Americans, similar to what was done by Democratic presidents during the Great War and World War II.
"Of course, such restrictions based on religion and/or ethnicity clearly violate the U.S. Constitution, a fact that apparently didn't occur to many participants," Anderson said. "Some of our other results strongly suggest that what is driving such anti-Muslim attitudes is the perception that Muslims are inherently violent."
Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. President Wilson took away the Constitution for anyone who disagreed with him in World War I while President Roosevelt more famously put Japanese-Americans in camps in World War II.
The combination of this belief associated with fear and the perception that Muslim Americans are "not like us" leads some to feel that Muslim Americans should be dealt with as outsiders, rather than as Americans, Anderson believes. This has been a debate in recent decades. America was once a 'melting pot' but beginning in the 1970s the sociological notion was promoted that America should be more like a 'salad bowl', with various communities existing on their own inside American cities. A lack of willingness to be American unsurprisingly feeds perception that people may want to exploit the benefits of the country, but not be American.
It was no surprise found that political conservatives and people who most strongly identify with their "fellow Americans" were more supportive of war against Muslim countries and civil restrictions of Muslim Americans, since terrorist acts committed by Muslims have part of planned efforts to exploit the freedom of Western nations to place fifth columnists where they can do the most damage.
Because political affiliation, age and gender can strongly influence beliefs, stereotypes and attitudes, the psychologists attempted to control for these factors to truly measure the level of media influence. Statistics can be tricky anyway, and arbitrarily controlling for those factors by an overwhelmingly partisan social science is only going to be considered done satisfactorily by, ironically, the media that wants to believe it, the same way they promote Muslim stereotypes;
The role of the media
Media portrayal obviously works, that is why people in culture wars attempt to get media influence, that is why colleges write press releases portraying psychology surveys as science. After watching the story about Muslim Americans volunteering at Christmas, participants were less likely to support military action and civil restrictions for Muslims. The story also reduced their view of Muslims as aggressive.
Anderson believes that more media groups should publish more positive news stories about Muslims to help stem the tide of anti-Muslim American sentiment, prejudice, and behavior. At what point does that involve suppressing actual news? It's unclear, but journalism is fluid. The psychologists don't want coverage to be limited, they say, but rather they should actively promote positive stories about Muslim Americans. And when covering Islamic-related terrorist attacks, reporters could talk with Muslim Americans about their opposition to such actions.
And obviously Muslim-Americans, or Muslims living in America, can also help erase negative stereotypes by speaking out and being more visible in their communities.
"Muslim American groups could be more proactive with outreach programs to educate everyone about their beliefs and positive contributions to U.S. society," Anderson said. "If news media provide more reports of such activities, we might be able to create a more accurate and accepting view of people of all religions."