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Images and reports of terrorism can cause powerful reactions in people, including anger, fear, and anxiety. According to research by Professor Muniba Saleem of the Department of Communication Studies, they can have another consequence: They lead people to perceive all Muslims as aggressors, and they fuel anti-Muslim policies and rhetoric.
Please tell us about your study.
Muniba Saleem: The research actually comprised three different studies—two that were correlational, one experimental—which showed that exposure to terrorism news influences aggressive perceptions towards Muslims which then leads to support for public policies that are going to harm Muslims internationally and domestically. Internationally, we are talking about policies like support for military action in Muslim countries to reduce the influence of Islam. The domestic policies are things like support for civil restrictions towards Muslim Americans, such as separate and more thorough airport security lines, restrictions on voting, and government tracking of Muslims. Essentially, Americans who were exposed to terrorism news ended up thinking of Muslims as aggressive, which then led them to support these kinds of policies.
Were there any findings that you were particularly surprised by?
MS: We were surprised to discover that Americans are willing to impose civil restrictions on their fellow American citizens who are Muslim. In addition, we found that exposure to positive or even neutral news ended up actually reducing these effects. The positive clip that participants watched was only two to three minutes long, but immediately after that when we assessed the same outcomes, there was a drop in support for harmful policies. That shows that if there were more balanced coverage of Muslims in America, you would see a reduction in beliefs of Muslims as aggressive, and reduced support for these kinds of harmful policies. It was actually surprising to see that a short, one-time exposure could actually make that kind of change.
Is there one media outlet in particular that stands out as doing a good job giving a balanced portrayal of Muslims?
MS: It’s hard to answer that because I’m not aware of any content analyses that have looked at news exposure for Muslims and evaluated whether it’s positive or negative across a particular outlet. However, I do know that some are trying to do a better job of giving a voice to this community—for example, Al Jazeera America tried to feature Muslim scholars and community members. Unfortunately, most of the time what you see is—even on panels and news channels where there is a discussion going on about Islam or Muslims in America—there will be four or five panelists, and none of them will be Muslim. It is important to include members of the community within these kinds of discussions.
Does it make a difference if someone gets their ideas of Muslims from the media as opposed to personal contact and relationships with them?
MS: Yes, absolutely. A lot of the social psychology work on contact does show that direct contact, especially positive contact with members of some group, leads to more positive cognitions and positive inter-group relations.
One of the studies that we are in the process of publishing examines the difference in opinions of Americans who rely on media versus those who rely on personal contact for information about Muslims. Results reveal that Americans who rely on media, relative to those who rely on personal contact, are much more likely to support public policies harming Muslims. These results highlight how important personal positive contact is. The problem is that most Americans don’t have a lot of direct contact with Muslims in their everyday lives, and so they are actually relying on media for most of their information about this group and the media is mostly representing this community in a negative light.
Do you think anti-Muslim political rhetoric is causing more negative perceptions in people, or do you think the rhetoric is more of a reaction to negative ideas and news already out there?
MS: This is tough to tease apart as there is likely a reciprocal relationship between the two. I suspect that anti-Muslim political rhetoric is shifting social norms so that expressing negative sentiments against Muslims is considered to be acceptable. In other words, individuals who would normally not have spoken against this group or would not have displayed these kinds of biases suddenly feel like it is OK to do so. Similar trends have been observed historically for other groups. For example, during World War II, people felt comfortable expressing negative sentiments towards Japanese Americans. In fact, political rhetoric and the public was in support of putting Japanese American citizens in internment camps—even though people knew that that’s really not the right way to treat any particular group. Wars and conflicts change social norms in a way where people feel it is acceptable to express prejudice against a particular group. Right now that’s happening with Muslims, and sadly political rhetoric is exacerbating it.
How does this current research fit in with some of the other work that you do in your lab?
MS: A lot of the work that I do is looking at how media could influence conflict, including interpersonal and intergroup conflict. In addition to examining how media influenced the majority’s view, we also try to understand how media images of Muslims are influencing the way they think about themselves, both as Muslims and as Americans. For example, in one study we are trying to understand what happens to second generation Muslim American who are growing up in a context where their religious group is represented in a negative light and are being told they’re not “real” Americans, even though they are American citizens who are born in the United States. What does that do to their identity? What does that do to their perceptions of whether they can be both Muslim and American? Do they feel they have to choose between being one or the other? And how does that ultimately affect their civic engagement and relationship with the majority group?
Muniba Saleem is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies and a faculty associate at the Institute for Social Research. She also directs the Conflict Research Lab, which conducts experiments on how media influences interpersonal and intergroup conflict. Dr. Saleem received her Ph.D in social psychology from Iowa State University and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Carnegie Mellon University before starting her position at the University of Michigan.