Islamophobia in the mainstream media and cognitive biases

Tamim Mobayed looks into the epidemic levels of Islamophobia within the British media and how it is intrinsically linked to cognitive biases.

While any casual observer might tell you that Muslims get unfair treatment within the media, an increasing amount of data is now being published to certify this. These findings are making it increasingly difficult for those who claim that Islamophobia does not exist, or that Muslims have only themselves to blame for their treatment within the media.

The University of Alabama will soon be publishing a study that found that terrorist attacks that are committed by Muslim extremists receive a staggering 357% more coverage in the US media than those committed by non-Muslims. Significantly, the study examined coverage of terrorist attacks from 2006 through to 2015; 1 year before Donald Trump took office. One can only wonder what the difference might be now in the context of an ever more shifted Overton window. It also highlights the reality that Islamophobia was rampant in the pre-Trump era, and there is a case to be made that it was one of the significant factors that led to this very era.

Certainly, the Right has no monopoly on Islamophobia. The disparity in coverage exists despite the number of terror attacks being carried out by non-Muslims in the US being more than twice that of terror attacks carried out by Muslims. One study reported that according to the FBI’s data, Jewish terrorists were accountable for more attacks than Muslim terrorists in the US, between 1980 and 2005. The full study from the University of Alabama is due to be published within the next edition of the Justice Quarterly. In fact, the 357% figure might be a little conservative; a previously published study by Georgia State University reported that coverage of a terror attack increases by 449% when the perpetrator was a Muslim.

Closer to home, independent news outlet Evolve Politics (EP) published an article last month highlighting an alarming trend within the mainstream British media. The outlet reported a striking difference between the coverage given in the mainstream press in relation to the British Labour Party’s “problem with Antisemitism”, when compared to coverage of the Conservative Party’s’ “problem with Islamophobia”.

Focusing on the work of the BBC, EP noted the BBC’s “wall to wall” coverage of Labour’s Antisemitism saga was not transferred to the similarly grave allegations made against the Conservative Party in relation to Islamophobia. EP’s claims were made based on the number of hits garnered when searching “Labour Antisemitism” on the BBC website (224 results), with a search on “Conservative Islamophobia” presenting a puny four reports. This huge disparity exists despite the similarities between the accusations made, mainly in the form of hateful public comments made by members of each party. It is important to highlight that downplaying of Islamophobia is not the only factor at work here, though many will see it as the dominant factor. The other trend that is exposed here is the media’s treatment of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn.

Numbers taken from media outlet Medium show that reportage is 43.6% average lower on Islamophobia when compared to Antisemitism, across 4 mainstream British outlets (The BBC, The Guardian, The Independent, and The Times). Crucially, Medium also reported that Islamophobic incidents “are outnumbering anti-Semitic incidents at a rate of approximately three to one”. The Times fared the worst, exhibiting a difference of 66.6% in terms of reports on Antisemitism when compared with Islamophobia.

It becomes important to reflect on these two trends in the media combined. On one hand, when a Muslim is committing an act of terror, the amount of coverage that it is receiving in the mainstream press is colossally higher than similar attacks by non-Muslims. On the other, when a Muslim is a victim of Islamophobia, it receives significantly less attention than is received when a victim is from another religion. This is creating an environment within which people are hearing about the crimes of Muslims, and not hearing about the instances in which Muslims are victims of crime.

Cognitive biases

Even the most aware human being is susceptible to cognitive biases. Biases such as confirmation bias, and the availability cascade, breed in these conditions. Confirmation bias describes the phenomenon that occurs when the brain pays particular attention to information that confirms views an individual already holds, while discounting anything that might conflict with that view. In this way, the views of individuals who hold negative views towards Islam and Muslims will snowball as the media plays its role in facilitating this skewedness.

Perhaps more worryingly, the availability cascade describes the process by which an individual begins believing a position due to being constantly exposed to it. In this way, confirmation bias reinforces the views of those who already hold hostile views towards Muslims, while the availability cascade holds the potential to begin souring the opinions of those who hold positive or neutral views towards Muslims.

These process are not occurring in a vacuum, and the changes that are occurring are not exclusively within the thoughts and attitudes held by members of the public. Islamophobic attacks continue to be a significant problem in both the US and the UK.

More subtle trends are emerging too, such as increasing challenges to Muslims within the job market. Before even beginning the conversation about the qualitative content within the media regarding Muslims, the sheer biases that are being exposed on a quantitative level are extreme. These biases within the media, and the consequent fairness deficit, continues to make life harder for Muslims, by skewing public perception about the threats posed by Islam and Muslims.

You can follow Tamim Mobayed on Twitter @tammob88

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