How Media Researchers Draw Hasty Conclusions

Many studies dealing with the representation of Islam in Western media come to the conclusion that there is a tendency to portray Islam in a negative way. Klemens Ludwig doubts whether they all adhere to scientific criteria

For many years researchers have been preoccupied with the representation of Islam in the media. The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) in Vienna has issued statements on the subject, as have university institutes and associations representing Islamic interests. It is conspicuous that the studies all come to similar conclusions; the unanimous verdict is that the media stirs up fear and prejudice towards Islam and reinforces the image of Islam as the enemy.

“Radio, television and newspapers have made only tentative efforts to report in a balanced way and offer a constructive dialogue with Islam,” concludes the EUMC, an official EU institution, in summary. An employee at the Centre for Studies on Turkey in Essen, quoted on German daily TV news programme, the Tagesschau, observed, “really since the murder of Theo van Gogh a level of fear and panic has broken out in Germany, and in news reporting, showing a lack of objectivity hitherto unseen.”

And Kai Hafez, Islam specialist and professor at the department for Media and Communications Studies in the University of Erfurt, complains that the German TV stations ARD and ZDF “are stoking up fear of Islam” and rely on a “simplistic notion of the battle between cultures”.

Dubious methodology

Such unanimous opinions seem to point to an incontrovertible phenomenon. Unless the publications are guilty of exactly what they accuse the media of: indiscriminate generalisation. We can hardly be expected to believe that official, public broadcasting authorities with programmes specifically for immigrants report on Islam in the same way as private, commercial channels; that liberal daily or weekly papers promote the same image of Islam as the tabloid press.

The simple fact that German newspapers, TV and radio channels deliver the conclusions of such research without comment, immediately renders these conclusions questionable. The studies may lead to similar accusations simply because they demonstrate the same dubious methodology, in which the line of inquiry predetermines the answers.

An example of this is the recent study by Kai Hafez on “the representation of violence and conflict within Islam by ARD and ZDF”. In 2005/6 his institute examined the representation of Islam on the two stations’ magazine and talk shows. According to the study, 81% of the programmes link Islam to “subjects with negative connotations”, 11% to culture or religion and 8% to everyday or social subjects.

The “subjects with negative connotations” include terrorism and extremism (23.31 %), international conflicts (16.54 %), religious intolerance (9.77 %) and repression of women (4.51 %).

Lack of evidence

One conclusion of this study is that “the problem is less the representation of the negative than the elision of the normal, the everyday and the positive”. The study was based however on magazine and talk shows; it is not their job to cover everyday events, and they cannot be reprimanded for not doing so.

When the magazine and talk shows deal with the subject of adolescence, violence and drugs feature heavily, although the daily life of the majority of adolescents is unaffected by them. No-one has yet accused ARD or ZDF of discriminating against young people.

Furthermore one might ask what the studies mean by a “negative representation of Islam”. The EUMC accuses journalists of presenting images “which strengthen hostility: women in headscarves, or children on the way to the Koran school”. Kai Hafez cites reports on Jews in Iran and Copts in Egypt as evidence of negative reporting relating to Islam. With such statements the researchers seem to be holding the bearers of bad tidings responsible for the content of their message, as no-where is it shown that the reports are distorted or biased.

“Almost all terrorists are Muslims”

The Erfurt report ceases to be scientific at all when it claims that such a focus on violence “is unusual when compared with other religions, particularly when these religions also exhibit types of extremism”. No attack by Tamil/Hindu extremists or US Christian fundamentalists fails to make the global press. And when, twenty-five years ago, Indian Sikhs sought to bomb their way to independence, reporting on this religious community was dominated by the subject of terror.

If there are no reports today on violence in other religions, then this is because there is none to report on. A self-critical commentator from the Arabic station Al Jazeera admitted this years ago: “Of course you can’t say that all Muslims are terrorists, but we have to come to terms with the fact that almost all terrorists are Muslims.”

It is these studies themselves which focus solely on negative reporting of Islam to the exclusion of all else. ZDF is about to launch its Forum zum Freitag, an online platform for Muslims, and in six weeks SWR will launch the Islamisches Wort on the internet. It would be worth conducting a study on the alternative: euphemism and mollification in reports on fanaticism.

When the Dutch Islam-critic Theo van Gogh was murdered, the Tagesschau described it several times, almost apologetically, as “the murder of the controversial filmmaker”. Imagine the reaction if a news presenter in 1977 had talked about the Baader-Meinhof Group’s murder of the ’controversial’ employers-association president and former Nazi, Hanns-Martin Schleyer.

That the media only focus on the negative used to be a bugbear of conservative cultural criticism. Even former German president Karl Carstens made this his pet subject; he did not, however have Islam in mind.

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