It didn’t surprise Iowa State University researchers to find a correlation between watching news stories about Muslim terrorists and supporting military action against their countries.
What was more surprising, or maybe just disappointing, to Iowa State psychology professor Craig Anderson was that those stories made people want to restrict the freedoms of Muslim Americans, too.
The research by Anderson and others was conducted before the presidential campaign aimed a fresh spotlight on terrorism and Muslim civil rights. It was published this month in the journal Communication Research.
Anderson said that in surveys and a live experiment, the team found that exposure to stories portraying Muslims as terrorists made participants more likely to view Muslims as inherently aggressive and to support military action against them and restrictions on freedom.
On the flip side, people who saw positive portrayals of Muslim Americans showed the opposite effects. They were less supportive of military action against primarily Muslim counties. They were also less likely to believe that Muslims were inherently aggressive or to support restricting their rights.
“For the average consumer, knowledge is power in some sense to the extent that you know that these kinds of stories are not giving a balanced representation of American Muslims, for example,” Anderson said.
“I would like to think that if people hear about this kind of research it might make them think ‘Wow, I wonder if my feelings and beliefs and fears have been manipulated in some sense by the news stories I see?’ ”
Participants in the research were randomly assigned to watch a series of news clips, and, other than the control group, the participants each saw a story focused on Muslims.
One group saw a “negative” story on a terror plot by Muslims. Another saw a “neutral” story about a school making changes to a football team’s practice schedule for Ramadan. Others saw a “positive” story about a group of Muslim volunteers doing community service.
There are lessons here for news organizations, said Raluca Cozma, a journalism professor at Iowa State. Journalists can make a difference by actively seeking out positive stories that include Muslims or reflecting their viewpoint in stories about Islamic-related terrorist attacks, she said.
Journalists should avoid, or at least challenge, biased politicians and seek out diverse individuals to talk with, Cozma said.