Since 9/11, negative messages about Muslims have received more media attention than positive ones, new research finds.
This pattern is despite the fact that fear- and anger-based messages were on the fringe between 2001 and 2008, the scientists add. However, the media's intense focus on organizations putting out negative messages seems to have strengthened those group's positions.
"There are consequences of this media coverage, so that fringe organizations can actually come to redefine what we think of as mainstream," study researcher Christopher Bail, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina and the University of Michigan, told LiveScience.
Muslims in the media
After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Bail became interested in the public discourse surrounding Islam. Controversies about the faith have regularly arisen since 2001, including Florida pastor Terry Jones' promise to burn Korans in 2010, considered an affront in Islam, and a recent anti-Muslim film that triggered riots around the world.
Bail wanted to understand how private organizations with pro- and anti-Islam agendas interacted with the media. He collected 1,084 press releases from 120 organizations, including Muslim groups, evangelical Christian groups and think tanks with various interests. He then compared these press releases with 50,407 newspaper articles and television transcripts from 2001 to 2008 to find out which organizations were best at influencing media coverage. [8 Ways Religion Impacts Your Life]
Bail analyzed articles from the New York Times, USA Today and the Washington Times, as well as from CBS, CNN and Fox's television broadcasts to ensure a wide range of ideologies.
He found press releases that were emotional, displaying fear and anger, had the best chance of getting the media's attention (85 percent of all the press releases went unnoticed by journalists). Not only that, but the least representative messages got the most attention.
"The groups that were getting the majority of the attention, especially after 9/11, were some of the least representative groups, or what I call fringe groups," Bail said.
These groups aren't part of the tin-foil-hat crowd, Bail added; by fringe, he means not that the groups lack influence, but that their messages were unlike most others.
Emotions get attention
For example, Muslim organizations put out many messages condemning terrorism, in response to nearly any incident, Bail said. But these press releases were usually dispassionate or mournful, and they received little media coverage.
But Muslim groups often put out angry and emotional messages in response to cases of discrimination against Muslims. These messages got more media attention. To the newspaper-reading and TV-watching public, the impression is that Muslims care little about condemning terrorism and are over-sensitive to Islamophobia, Bail said.
This, in turn, convinces anti-Muslim organizations that they're right and Muslims are trying to advance Islamic law (known as "Sharia") under the guise of political correctness, he added.
The "fringe effect" of rare emotional messages getting the most attention also boosts anti-Muslim groups who put out frequent angry press releases. An analysis of financial records from the IRS and social strength of anti-Muslim groups (as measured by networks of board members in the organizations) found that increased media influence helped groups cement their power over the course of the years studied.
"What happens in the media matters to the groups themselves," Bail said.
There's likely no single answer to getting more representative coverage of pro- and anti-Islamic attitudes, Bail said. Muslim groups could inject more emotion into their condemnations of terrorism in hope of getting more attention, he said. There is also frustration in the Muslim community that reporters only come around when they want a comment on something negative, such as terrorism or war.
Perhaps most importantly, consumers of news can keep a healthy skepticism when reading articles or watching reports about Islam.
"When we look at the media we have the tendency to assume these groups have been thoroughly vetted and that they are representative of what is going on," Bail said. "Often, I think my study shows, it's actually the opposite. It's groups that are very unrepresentative."
The findings appear today (Nov. 29) in the journal American Sociological Review.
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.