Snake and stranger: Media coverage of Muslims and refugee policy


Dulles International Airport travel ban protest PHOTO/Geoff Livingston

A new paper by Meighan Stone, Entrepreneurship Fellow (spring 2017) and former president of the Malala Fund, argues that the predominantly negative coverage of Muslims and refugees on U.S. TV news contributes to negative public opinion of Muslims, and in turn, policies such as President Trump’s “Muslim ban.”

In an analysis of the major newscasts of three outlets—CBS, Fox, and NBC—Stone finds that during a two-year period from 2015-2017, there was not a single month where positive stories about Muslims outnumbered negative stories. Terrorist activities and conflict were the major focus of news reports about Muslims, accounting for 75 percent of the coverage. ISIS served as protagonist in three-fifths of all Muslim-centered stories, while positive coverage, such as human interest stories or those depicting Muslims as productive members of society, were overlooked. In reports where Muslims were the focus, only 3 percent of the voices heard were those of Muslims, while Trump spoke on their behalf 21 percent of the time. Stories about refugees were also negative in tone; more than half of the global refugee population is Muslim.

Stone writes that with only 45 percent of Americans saying they personally know even a single Muslim, such media coverage helps drive Islamophobia and the rejection of refugees. While the media cannot be faulted for covering violence perpetrated by groups like ISIS and Boko Haram, what journalists underplay are positive developments in the Muslim community and the efforts of that community to forge a place in America, which includes combating those in their community who hold extremist ideologies that do not reflect their values or faith. The stakes could not be higher for millions of Muslim-Americans and refugees—some of the world’s most vulnerable people—who could stand to gain considerable legal outcomes, justice, and safety from shifts in media coverage.

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