Does the mainstream news ever feel like the pounding of a war drum?
Longtime advocates for peace say their work has gotten a lot harder ever since ISIS (also known as Daesh) became a household name, and that has a lot to do with how the media covers violent extremism, according to a new report by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC).
AFSC researchers looked at 600 news stories published by 20 national outlets in the United States last year and discovered a pervasive tendency toward painting violent extremism as an inherently Islamic problem that is only solvable with the use of force.
Unfortunately, US military interventions in the Middle East, during which extremism becomes a constant focus of the news media’s attention, have — over and over again — failed to forge any kind of lasting peace. Still, national Pew polls show support for military interventions in Iraq and Syria was as high as 64 percent at the end of 2015, and 66 percent of people in the US think that waging more war would succeed in the long term.
The AFSC researchers looked at some of the largest broadcast and print outlets in the US, ranging from CBS and NBC to The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal, as well as “influencer” outlets such Politico and Foreign Affairs. The news came from both sides of the political spectrum — Fox News was analyzed alongside NPR and PBS — but the results were often the same.
“One of the things that we found most striking was how similar the articles were,” said AFSC researcher Beth Hallowell.
Violent extremism takes many forms all over the world, but 90 percent of news items including the word “extremism” also mentioned Islam, whether Islam or Muslims were part of the story or not. In comparison, only 13 percent mentioned Christianity, and 4 percent mentioned Judaism. Nearly two-thirds of the articles mentioned ISIS at least once, with al-Qaeda coming in a distant second.
This pattern paints the Islamic religion as a source of violent extremism, rather than the use of radical religious rhetoric as a weapon and recruiting tool by certain extremist groups, according to the report.
Years of research conducted since the 9/11 attacks have documented how news media’s habit of equating violence and extremism with Islam has contributed to upticks in violence, discrimination and hate crimes against Muslims, particularly Muslims of color. The number of hate crimes against Muslims in the United States tripled last year after the terrorist attacks in Paris and California, and researchers at the Center for American Progress have identified a well-funded network of war hawks, pundits and policy groups that promote anti-Muslim sentiments in the news.
Hallowell said the news outlets often frame their coverage of “terrorism” in a way that fails to tell the whole story. Instead, most of the coverage in her sample appeared to pit the “spectacular bad guys” against the “rational good guys,” even though the real world is a lot more complicated.
AFSC found that 57 percent of news items characterized extremists to be psychotic, bloodthirsty and “irrational,” but 61 percent of news items described just how “rational” these actors can be, including coverage of ISIS’s ability to recruit internationally and use complex military tactics. A surprising 21 percent of news items fit into both categories.
Hallowell argues that presenting groups like ISIS as “crazy” yet “cold-calculating” and “cunning” suggests that violence is the only constructive way to respond to the problems they create. Violence has never solved problems in the Middle East, but there is little discussion in the dominant media of the history and political complexities behind violent extremism, even though groups like ISIS do not appear out of a vacuum.
Violence and sensationalism have always sold newspapers and raised TV ratings. Thus, Hallowell said, the problems in coverage of extremism raise concerns that the mainstream media are more interested in “funneling the discussion toward wider war” instead of examining the real roots of violence and political upheaval.
A whopping 75 percent of the news stories on extremism covered violent responses to conflict, such as drone strikes and bombings, but only 16 percent mentioned nonviolent responses such as peace talks and economic development in countries where extremists recruit. Some news outlets seemed more focused on violence than others; for example, Fox News, ABC, CNN and CBS did not include any discussion of nonviolence in their reporting.
Hallowell said there are plenty of nonviolent strategies for confronting extremism. For example, the AFSC runs “peace-building” programs in Somalia and Indonesia that address the root causes of extremism, such as poverty and war.
Such efforts get little media attention, and that’s one thing that needs to change, Hallowell said. Journalists should also tell more stories highlighting our common humanity that uplift the voices of historically marginalized groups, including Muslims. Doing so would stem reactionary violence against Muslims and give peace a chance in the public debate.
“[That would provide] a fuller and better picture of what is possible and improve the public conversation, which [is] stuck in this racist and Islamophobic rut,” Hallowell said.