This study looks at how the US cable news media portrays Muslims and Muslim Americans. How would you characterize these portrayals?
Nazita Lajevardi: At baseline, I think it is important not only to establish that cable news has been a principal source of information for most Americans in the 1990s and through the 2000s, but that it persists in being a primary source of information today. Certainly, the 1990s and early 2000s marked the emergence of cable news networks as a favorite daily news source, with a Gallup poll finding that 41% of Americans said they get their news from “cable news networks such as CNN, Fox News Channel, and MSNBC” every day, putting them on par with the nightly network news shows (Carlson 2002).
Today, Americans’ media diets have changed with the advent of new technologies and the rise of social media networking sites. Notwithstanding these new options, however, cable news is still a relevant player in shaping individuals’ information diets. Even though Americans now have quite a few options for news consumption, they continue to watch cable news channels like CNN, MSNBC, and FOX. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, each of the three networks, in fact, posted double digit growth in viewership in the second quarter of 2017 (Otterson 2017). And, in 2020, which saw both a presidential election and the covid-19 pandemic, cable news audiences increased for each of these three networks.
My study turns to the universe of available cable news broadcast transcripts from CNN from 1992-2016, and from MSNBC and FOX from 2001-2016 to assess how the US cable news media portrays Muslims and Muslim Americans in comparison to other stigmatized groups in the US. I estimate the volume of mentions of these groups, as well as the sentiment of news coverage each group receives.
In terms of volume, I find that the proportion of coverage that mentioned Muslims—generally (including portrayals of the global group of adherents)—across each of the three cable news channels grew substantially over time, while the proportion of Muslim American coverage (the domestic group more specifically) remained negligible over time. Prior to 2001, Muslims were not mentioned in even 5% of broadcasts. By 2016, however, Muslims were mentioned in 28.46% of CNN, 31.53% of FOX, and 41.65% of MSNBC broadcasts. Overall, I find that compared to what typically airs on cable news channels, media portrayals about Muslims, generally, and Muslim Americans are very negative no matter the outlet we look at, whether it be FOX, CNN, or MSNBC.
How does the Muslim and Muslim American portrayals compare to that of other stigmatized groups in the US, including the Black, Latino, and Asian American communities?
My analyses evaluate how the media portrayals of Muslims and Muslim Americans compare to that of other groups—namely Blacks, Latinos, and Asian Americans—for two reasons. First, I evaluate the coverage of these groups in order to judge the validity of the data and results. If the coverage of these other groups is similar in tone to the average broadcast that is typically airing on each network, then the dataset itself might be biased. But if the coverage of these groups is substantially more negative than what typically airs on these platforms, then that would increase the validity of the data. And this is what I find: each group’s yearly mean sentiment coverage tended to fall below the average of all broadcasts that aired on CNN, FOX, and MSNBC, providing face validity for the standardized sentiment measure by confirming results from prior studies that argued that Black and Latino coverage was more negative than typical news coverage.
Second, this comparison allows me to contextualize the findings. Since we know the portrayals of these groups are already negative in the media, if the portrayals of Muslims are just as negative or even more negative, then that tells us something about how dire the coverage actually is. I find that while there is substantial variation from year to year, a slightly increasing gap between the coverage of Muslim Americans and the coverage of other stigmatized U.S. groups appears to exist over time. In the decade after 2001, the standardized sentiment coverage of Muslim Americans appears to be below that of the three other domestic groups covered, and appears to trace that of Muslims—the general category—much more closely, indicating that the coverage that Muslims receive is even more negative than groups we know already fare negatively in the news media.
In your paper you evaluate how the Muslim and Muslim American cable news media depictions affect American public opinion and policy making. What were your primary findings?
NL: I conduct four survey experiments from 2016-2019 to test how exposure to negative versus positive coverage of Muslims versus Muslim Americans might shape attitudes towards the domestic group and also towards immigration policy positions affecting Muslims foreign and domestic. Across the four studies, I consistently find that randomized exposure to negative coverage—no matter the group—significantly worsens attitudes and increases hostile policy preferences. Notably, exposure to negative media frames of Muslims—who we have now seen make up a large proportion of cables news media coverage in general—affect attitudes towards Muslim Americans.
Positive coverage presents a different story, with mixed findings. In some of the experiments, randomized exposure to positive coverage does not shift attitudes at all, whereas in others, it shifts them minimally to become more positive, but are not at all as strong as negative coverage in terms of the magnitude of the effect.
What are the implications of these findings for US policy?
NL: It is clear that exposure to news portrayals can be damaging to stigmatized groups. Here, I’ve shown results from four studies where people briefly read a textual excerpt in a survey. What about the people watching clips with music, banners, and images all increasing the takeaway of the message being disseminated on the news? What about the fact that many people are exposed to more than one broadcast and are repeatedly exposed to these narratives? The real-world implications when we realize that people are receiving these messages in a highly produced context, I think, should raise alarm.
Certainly, we should be critical of the news and the information that it provides us. And, one lesson moving forward is that cable news should be more subject to journalistic norms and that journalists should exercise a duty of care when sensationalizing depictions that harm already marginalized communities.
How do these findings complement the existing literature on the effects of US cable news media depictions of stigmatized groups, in particular Muslim and Muslim Americans, on public opinion and policy making?
NL: In line with other scholarship, the findings here show that individuals privilege negative information, especially when tied to a group that has been linked to terrorism. Since the text of the experiments is tied to terrorism, it is not surprising that individuals would privilege the information in the treatments when they are exposed to one that has terrorism tied to negative information. But the difference here is that the findings show that there is a spillover effect of portrayals of a general—and mostly foreign group—onto attitudes towards a domestic one.