Academics at Lancaster University have completed an ESRC financed research project on ‘The representation of Muslims in the British press 1998-2009'. The researchers analysed over 200,000 media articles written on Islam and Muslim over the eleven year period.
The research is the most extensive study done to date and is in the same vein as earlier studies such as the Cardiff University report of 2008, ‘Images of Islam in the UK: The Representation of British Muslims in the National Print News Media 2000-2008’ and a further ESRC/AHRC funded research project on ‘Media portrayals of religion and the secular sacred’ led by Professor Kim Knott and Dr Elizabeth Poole (2010).
The study, conducted by Dr Paul Baker, Professor Tony McEnery and Dr Costas Gabrielatos, reiterates key findings from other studies reinforcing claims of media bias towards fringe groups at the expense of mainstream Muslims, and on word association with Islam and Muslims engendering negative connotations with the religion and its adherents.
From the research summary paper:
“A Lancaster University research team led by Dr. Paul Baker and funded by the Economic and Social Science Research Council, has collected and analysed over 200,000 newspaper articles written about Islam and Muslims between 1998 and 2009. This amounted to 143 million words of journalism which was analysed by the team using computer software to search for and identify language patterns across the articles in order to give an idea of the most frequent ways that Muslims are written about. Generally, the team found that the majority of representations took care not to make over-generalising statements about Muslims in an overtly negative way, although some tabloids did use headlines such as MUSLIMS TELL BRITISH: GO TO HELL! (Daily Express, November 4th, 2010), BBC PUT MUSLIMS BEFORE YOU! (The Star, October 18th, 2006), MUSLIM SCHOOLS BAN OUR CULTURE (Daily Express, February 20th, 2009).
“More generally expressly negative, and at times vituperative, were a few columnists, especially in The Sun newspaper. For example, Julie Burchill (The Sun June 24th, 2009), on Muslim women who wear the veil wrote: ‘We let shroud-swishing zombies flout OUR standards of freedom and tolerance every day.’ Jeremy Clarkson (The Sun, June 30th, 2007) wrote: ‘the "Muslim community" was allowed to parade through London urging passers-by to blow up a skyscraper and behead the infidels’ and John Gaunt(The Sun June 20th, 2008)wrote ‘we wasted thousands in legal aid on silly little misguided Muslim girls to take schools to court for the right to dress like a Dalek in a full veil’. Yet, in the past, complaints about patently Islamophobic columnists to the Press Complaints Commission have resulted in the response: ‘The column clearly represented a named columnist’s personal view and would be seen as no more than his robust opinions’ – a defence that some newspapers and columnists have clearly exploited.
“More common than the expressly negative representation of Muslims, was a more subtle set of implicitly negative representations, with Muslims often being ‘collectivised’ via homogenising terms like ‘Muslim world’ and written about predominantly in contexts to do with conflict, terrorism and extremism. For example, collectively, when a British newspaper mentioned the word Muslim/Muslims an ‘extreme belief’ word like extremist or fanatic occurred next to it about 1 in 20 cases (proportionally, The Guardian wrote least about extremist Muslims only writing about them 1 in 36 times - at the opposite end of the spectrum The People had extremists as 1 in 8 examples of all mentions of Muslims). Interestingly, however, the British press couldn’t decide for some time what to call Muslim extremists. Back in 1998 they were hardliners, although they had changed into fanatics by 2001. Militants took over between 2002-6, slightly overlapping with the rise of radicals from 2004-8. Starting in 2005, the press slowly settled on extremists. This is a general picture - individual newspapers had their favourite terms: The Times also used zealots while some of the red-tops sometimes opted for muppets, sheep, lowlife and cretins. Overall, references to extremist Muslims were much higher than to ‘moderate’ ones. For every one moderate Muslim mentioned, 21 examples of extremist Muslims are mentioned in the British press. It is also interesting to note that so-called ‘moderate Muslims’ often got praised in a way which implies they are good because they aren’t fully Muslim.
“Explicit references to extremism were also found next to the word Islamic 1 in 6 times across all the newspapers – indeed it is likely that Islamic is now difficult to use in a neutral way as it is so heavily laden with negative overtones and disapproval.
“The Daily Mail caused consistent and known offence by spelling Muslim as Moslem; up until 2003, The Mail and The Express regularly wrote about Moslems. The spelling has a pronunciation which sounds like the Arabic word for ‘oppressor’, and the Muslim Council wrote to both newspapers asking them to spell it Muslims in future. The Express complied, but The Daily Mail continued with Moslem for about a year after that, being the last newspaper to abandon the spelling. Where The Mail did occasionally write approvingly of Muslims it was when it played one social group off against another as in the story ‘Driven out by the Gay Mafia: Leading Scots Muslim forced to quit charity group after objections to his support for traditional family values’. (Daily Mail, June 15, 2006).
“Overall the project highlighted a serious journalistic problem – Muslims who just get on with their lives aren’t seen as newsworthy, so it’s the likes of Abu Hamza who are more likely to attract press attention. Indonesia, which has the largest population of Muslims, is written about much less than troubled yet less populous areas such as Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan. Yet when newspapers write about a minority group like Muslims, if they focus on a violent subset of that group, there is the danger that the majority suffer guilt by association. In a climate where the UK can spawn a group like the English Defence League, a wider set of representations of Islam would signify a welcome change to reporting practices. Muslims deserve a better press than they have been given in the past decade.”
This research summary is for the forthcoming publication ‘Discourse Analysis and Media Bias: The representation of Islam in the British Press’ by Baker, P., Gabrielatos, C. and McEnery A. (2012, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).