Stuck in a Rut? Representation of Muslims in Swedish Media Still Stereotypical

September 19, 2016

Do Swedish media present more nuanced images of Muslims as the Swedish population becomes more diverse?

Photo: Jaume Escofet                                                                                                  

Photo: Jaume Escofet                                                                                                  88x31.png

Diverse population yields diversified news coverage?

The representation of Islam and Muslims in the news, and in the media more broadly, has been a hot topic among scholars as well as in political and public debate for quite a while. Muslim groups in Scandinavia as well as in many Western countries claim to experience a negative tone or even hostility in the media, and have increasingly voiced this concern. As the number of Muslims has grown in Europe and Muslims are increasingly present in all sectors of society including the media, and - the debate about the negative portrayal of Muslims has been recurring for some time - an assumption could be that media portrayals of Muslims would become more nuanced or diverse over time. This was also my assumption when I started working on the study this blog posted is based on.

International studies of Western media have showed that Islam and Muslims are for the most part portrayed in a stereotypical and negative way, and that has also been the case in Swedish and other Scandinavian studies. The stereotype of Muslims in western media has been summed up by the British media scholar Robin Richardson, who says that in western media, Muslims are all the same, all religiously motivated, all totally other, all inferior, all a threat and all impossible to work with.But this negative stereotyping is not a direct result of the rhetoric of  ”war on terror” and increased Muslim immigration to Europe. It has been studied at least since Edward Said published his book “Covering Islam: How the Media and the Experts Determine How We See the Rest of the World” in 1981. In resent years, there have been several Swedish and Scandinavian studies of the coverage of religion more generally in news media, such as the Nordic comparative NOREL project and a Swedish study of editorials by Alf Linderman and Mia Lövheim.  But there has been a clear lack of specific studies of representations of Muslims in the Swedish context. This was the background for the Swedish Equality Ombudsman commissioning a study about the representations of Muslims in Swedish news media. This study was conducted at Uppsala University during the winter 2014-15, and a sample of 186 news items from 11 newspapers (national and local, morning and popular, from a variation of ownership and political leanings) and 3 broadcast newsrooms for a period of seven weeks was collected and analyzed (the full report is available for download in Swedish here).

Delving into the coverage of Muslims and Islam in Swedish news

The material included a number of different topics and types of stories, ranging from editorials and opinion pieces, via long and short news stories, to feature interviews and short movie reviews. Still, the material was dominated by a group of articles/stories that had several traits in common, almost all of them relating to the war in Syria and Iraq. These stories were published in the international section, were fairly short and straight news stories (as opposed to opinion material) and where Islam were used as group label rather than actually describing religious activity or faith, and the theme of the article related to security/terrorism/military activity, and very rarely were any individual people portrayed or even mentioned. Articles with all of these traits in common make up around 25% of the entire material. In most of these articles, Muslims were mentioned as perpetrators of violence rather than victims or actors with a constructive role (if any of these). There were also some longer, more in-depth feature stories connecting to these themes, and some opinion pieces. Generally, the longer stories more often portrayed individual people and gave a more nuanced picture, while opinion pieces were more often generalizing and less nuanced in their representation of Muslims.

Articles on Muslims in Sweden gave a somewhat different picture, where more commonly people where interviewed and more perspectives were present. Here, it was more common that Muslims were described either as victims of violence (or threats or Islamophobia) or that they were constructive actors. But also in this in this category most articles touched upon themes such as violence, terrorism or tension in society and social problems. These few articles were typically on the cultural pages. Examples include a review of an art exhibition containing a piece with a Muslim call for prayer, and a story on a security guard who (in a long feature story on his work) tells an anecdote on being treated to good food during a Muslim festival.

Of the 186 articles in the material, only 23 mention women (though most article mention no individual people at all). Those who portrayed women specifically mostly did so in a positive way, and the women in the articles are generally described as active, accomplished and with agency to make a constructive contribution in their context. But this was mostly presented as something surprising, or a contrast to expectation. Women were lifted up as “strong” and accomplished in spite of being Muslim, or in spite of expected negative or suppressing surroundings. While probably trying to enhance the impression of the women being portrayed, these stories risk enforcing the stereotype of Muslim women in general being oppressed and without much possibility to accomplish things in life.

Surprising Stability of Stereotypical Representations

In total, only a small amount of articles did not in some way connect Muslims and Islam with violence, threats, tension in society or a difference between “us” and them”, as perpetrators or victims. The majority of these articles are short stories reporting important news, and if you scrutinize these stories individually, most of them are not necessarily biased or problematic publications in themselves, and it is not difficult to understand why an editor ran the story. But when taken as a whole, the combination of very strong recurring themes and lack of any other perspectives or stories gives the overall impression in the news that Muslims are connected to trouble.

This impression, and the results regarding the themes of the articles and the number of articles relating to violence and threats, are surprisingly similar to two previous Swedish studies of media representations of Muslims: Håkan Hvitfeldts study of TV news 1991-95 and a study by Marina Ghersetti and Anna Levin of the Swedish coverage of the 9/11 terror attacks 2001. These results are also consistent with many international studies conducted in the last decade. While there are obviously differences between the different studies, the main results seems to point to no major changes in the images of Muslims in Swedish media. During a period where the number of Muslims has increased in Sweden, but where also a growing number of Muslims who were born and raised in Sweden have earned positions in political life and civil society as well as the media, it seems like not much has changed in the overall news media representations of Muslims during the last 25 years, at least in traditional news media.

In social scientific research, no or small changes are usually the most expected results, as is consistency with previous research. But in this case, I was actually taken aback by the fact that there was no change to be surprised by. It seems that the media representations of Muslims in Sweden are more stable and stuck in a rut than (at least I) expected.