A back and forth review-and-response (‘Critical Dialogue’) between Erik Bleich and myself, as authors of Covering Muslims, and Elisabeth Ivarsflaten and Paul M. Sniderman, authors of The Struggle for Inclusion: Muslim Minorities and the Democratic Ethos. As we write in response to their review, ‘Juxtaposing the findings of our two books leads to a host of compelling research questions. We look forward to further research that enriches our understanding of the interactions between media coverage and public attitudes toward Muslims and other marginalized groups.’
In this article, we focus on broad patterns and trends in the coverage of Muslims to better understand the effect of 9/11. We show that key changes in the content of coverage were both nearly instantaneous and persistent. In particular, 9/11 dramatically tightened the connection in US newspaper reporting between Muslims, on the one hand, and terrorism and extremism, on the other hand. Moreover, the attacks also brought about an enduring increase in the volume of newspaper articles mentioning Muslims and Islam. These trends are evident not just in leading national titles such as the Times and the Post, but also across a range of more locally focused newspapers, including tabloids. On the other hand, although coverage also became more negative in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, this negative shock was comparatively short-lived, and the average tone of articles about Muslims and Islam had returned to pre-9/11 levels by the end of 2001. Sadly, those pre-9/11 levels were already systematically far more negative than for other minority groups in the United States.
Covering Muslims opens with a joke by the very funny comedian Maz Jobrani, about the negativity of Muslim media coverage. Jobrani and and his co-host Tehran interviewed myself and Erik Bleich for their podcast, Back to School with Maz Jobrani.
Scholars have identified Muslims’ religiosity and faith practices, often believed to be more intense than those of other religious groups, as a point of friction in liberal democracies. We use computer-assisted methods of lexical sentiment analysis and collocation analysis to assess more than 800,000 articles between 1996 and 2016 in a range of British, American, Canadian, and Australian newspapers. We couple this approach with human coding of 100 randomly selected articles to investigate the tone of devotion-related themes when linked to Islam and Muslims. We show that articles touching on devotion are not as negative as articles about other aspects of Islam—and indeed that they are not negative at all, on average, when focused on a key subset of devotion-related articles. We thus offer a new perspective on the perception of Islamic religiosity in Western societies. Our findings also suggest that if newspapers strive to provide a more balanced portrayal of Muslims and Islam within their pages, they may seek opportunities to include more frequent mentions of Muslim devotion.