A typology of negativity: What Muslim sources think of the news and news workers

May 14, 2018

Muslim sources in the news think reports about them and their religion are negative. Yet they persist in engaging. We need a clearer picture of what they say about news and the people who make it.

6971533278_9c5262d425_o.jpg#asset:859Image: Flickr/Colm MacCárthaigh

Muslims feel the news media report negatively about them.

Not, perhaps, the most stunning of conclusions. As Bob Dylan says, You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. Nonetheless, in social research on Muslims in non-Muslim majority contexts, such as the UK, we’ve got plenty of meteorologists.

The sentiment turns up in general studies about Muslims in Britain, either as responses to researcher questions or spontaneous comments. And it’s not just their opinion: scholars have a long track record of pointing out negative representations of Muslims in the media, from Edward Said and Jack Shaheen in the 1980s to bespokestudies on mediarepresentations.

However, this attention to representations ignores the construction of news – how events and statements get turned into the news we read, watch, and hear. The process of making news gives a fair bit of agency to journalists, but it’s important to remember that they don’t act in isolation. Journalism is a collective product: editors assign, reporters interview, editors edit, subeditors create (sometimes misleading) headlines and plug in photos. Moreover, journalists have nothing to put into their stories if they don’t hear it from people first. Sources matter because they provide the content, point journalists to other sources, and generally craft the direction for stories. Among political or corporate sources, we often call this “spin”: manipulating journalists to deliver a particular representation. But all sources do this, or at least try to. The resident being evicted so her landlord can build new luxury flats casts herself as the underdog hero standing up to soulless capitalism or the sympathetic victim whose desire for a simple life is being threatened.

My research explores the role Muslim sources play in the creation of news about Muslims in the UK. I interviewed journalists from a range of news organisations and sources from a range of social institutions to ask about that relationship and, from that, consider how it contributed to media representations. Given that the people in my sample are active contributors to those representations, their perceptions carry weight. For this blog post, I focus solely on the responses of news sources. At a basic level, their perceptions are in keeping with those revealed more generally in social research and substantiated, as I have noted above, by content analysis: the representations of Muslims are negative. Moreover, they say, journalists have negative attitudes to Muslims – they are “out to get them”.

What kind of negativity?

Just saying “coverage is negative” or “journalists are negative towards Muslims” doesn’t get us very far. Fortunately, my participants had a variety of ways of speaking about that negativity, and I’ve used this to develop a kind of typology of negativity. These terms were not synonyms exactly: though negative in character, they had specific connotations, such as “biased”, “irresponsible”, “simplistic”, or “offensive”. These words were doing different things. I grouped these terms in four different clusters. The first concerned suggestions of an agenda – a goal that the media were working towards which was either their own or, more commonly, someone else’s. “Someone else” was usually the government, as in “the BBC is now going down the route of basically being run by the government and our government’s agenda.”

The second set implied a faulty understanding of Islam on the part of journalists. Terms such as “simplistic” and “inaccurate” fit in here. We might associate these terms with the research agenda on religious literacy, through which social institutions (including the media) are encouraged to learn more about religious traditions. By misrepresenting Islam and Muslims, journalists were perpetuating a distorted image that had social consequences, according to participants.

A third set concerned journalistic process and values. Here, there was a sense that the essence of journalism made it somehow inimical to satisfactory representations of Islam. Commercial interests and a tendency to sensationalise were mentioned here. One participant said journalists were “lacking a human element”, by which she meant that the priority on “getting the story” above all else made journalists insensitive. Inside the journalistic community of practice, such considerations may win journalists favour due to their ruthless abilities to put their professional obligations first; however, a 2012 study from MediaAcT suggests UK journalists say they are responsible to their conscience before any other party, and even sources edged out “journalistic standards” for second place in the list.

The final cluster was the most extreme: words such as “vicious” and “sinister” were occasionally used, which I align with Islamophobia. The term remains contested, but the report that first gave shape to the term – the 1997 report from the Runnymede Trust – proposed a root binary distinction between “open” and “closed” views. The extreme terms that I have categorised here cast the news media as active agents of closed, hurtful views of Islam and Muslims. Individual columnists or reporters may craft such representations – some of them do so joyfully and with purpose; a report by a European commission singled out two news organisations, the Sun and the Daily Mail, for encouraging prejudice against Muslims.

This set of characteristics is helpful. It tells us a little more about the ways in which Muslims feel the news media report negatively about them. It breaks their concerns down, and we can address the categories differently.

Why engage in the face of such negativity?

What this typology doesn’t do is explain why, if it’s so negative, Muslims bother taking part in these media processes in the first place. It is equally possible for a Muslim in Britain to say, “These media narratives are so negative; I must do something to change them!” and, “These media narratives are so negative; there’s no point in trying to change them.” One path leads to engagement and the other to withdrawal, and as participants in my sample told me, withdrawal was a very tempting path for many after the enormity of the attacks of 9/11. My study looks instead at the people who chose to engage.

Yet that decision is not an obvious one. Engagement with the media is not always voluntary. I take a lot of the theoretical ballast for my work from Pierre Bourdieu, who was a master at thinking through social relationships. Two British sociologists have helped me understand his thinking as it relates to the media, and they work in slightly opposite directions. Nick Couldry mooted the idea of “media meta-capital” – the symbolic power increasingly invested in the media to impose their priorities onto other fields, such as politics and even science. This has a coercive quality to it, as the media become so determining that other actors need to play by its rules or risk irrelevancy or, perhaps worse, being defined by the media and suffering the effects of that without being able to contribute to that definition. This informs my idea that engagement with the media is not always voluntary.

Philip Schlesinger also notes the extraordinary power of the media, but he places more faith in the strength of sources to fight back. Media representations are not a given but are an accomplishment, and sources act strategically to control or influence these representations. Schlesinger knows that more powerful sources have more power to enact their strategies. But he wants to avoid a kind of fatalism which leaves groups at the mercy of dimly understood, ominous and mysterious powers. Through media training, the pursuit of relationships with journalists, and, honestly, lucky timing, participants in my study were able to pursue strategies that led to favourable media coverage for their projects.

So, what was behind the persistence of Muslim sources in my study? Not merely that, because of media power, they had to, though that is a part of it. They articulated to me different benefits and beneficiaries of engagement, and I sorted this into four groups, which you could imagine as concentric circles radiating outwards. At its core is the self. There are direct personal benefits to engaging with journalists. You get seen on TV and quoted in the papers. You get to know people, and you get to be the one telling it how it is. If you are engaged in internal struggles, that role or symbolic capital can be useful. Alternately, you might not be competitive within your field but in fact supportive and hoping to boost its success or defend its interests. The second beneficiary, then, is the community. Muslims saw a benefit to other Muslims by speaking to journalists, offering a narrative that they felt was less harmful and enriched by accurate information about their religion and their community of believers.

Strange as it may seem, given the perceptions of negativity, journalists were also classed as beneficiaries. Some of the participants in my study genuinely wanted to help journalists do their job well. Some of that was driven by a recognition of their lack of familiarity with Islam, and some of it was driven by the idea of a virtuous circle: their help would lead to a reciprocal relationship of help, building trust and perhaps widening the net of relationships. This leads us to the fourth beneficiary – society as a whole. In idealistic terms, society is improved by better relations and information. In intersectional terms, the interests of Muslims can combine fruitfully with those of other groups to advance social justice for many.

Understanding Muslim sources better

This research reveals what Muslim news sources feel they confront when dealing with the media and why they confront it. We learn not simply that journalistic attitudes and representations are negative but how they are negative. There is a difference between a critique that the news is commercially driven and that it is driven by a government agenda: they carry different social implications, demand different responses from the media, and point to different social institutions – the state and the market – as sources of anti-Muslim sentiment.

Nonetheless, the people in my sample took part in media processes as sources. They articulated benefits to themselves and their co-religionists, as well as the journalists reporting on them and wider society. It’s good for us to learn more about those who contribute to media reports about Muslims. Understanding their perseverance can help us imagine the conditions in which the representations about Muslims in the media may change.