Bleich: The Media, Marches And Muslims

Feb 6, 2017

I’ve been researching media portrayals of minorities with students at Middlebury College for four years, now. We’ve focused on how national and international media depict Muslims compared to how they discuss other religious groups.

After looking at dozens of newspapers across the U.S. and Great Britain, we’ve found it’s undeniable that Muslims are consistently associated with more negative coverage than other groups.

This is true in left-leaning, centrist, and right-leaning papers. It was true before 9/11 and remains so. Most importantly, it’s true EVEN in articles that don’t have anything to do with foreign events, terrorism, or other topics that might objectively explain why Muslims are associated with negative coverage. And it’s true even in our own regional community.

I recently attended two Vermont marches in favor of equality and civil rights, one in Montpelier, and one in Middlebury. They were different in size, but otherwise similar. There were signs, chanting, and speeches. The mood at both was a mix of festive, angry, and hopeful.

So I was struck by a noticeable mismatch in the way these two events were reported.

One news organization summed up the gathering of 20,000 people in Montpelier on January 20th like this: “protesters and civil rights advocates across the country joined the Women's March to rally for equal rights.”

But when covering the 500 or so people during the February 2nd Muslim Students Association rally in Middlebury, it reported “Uproar and unrest at Middlebury College.”

To me, there’s a clear contrast between those two descriptions, including, in the second, the suggestion of violence, even though there wasn’t any. I was left wondering if those words were used because Muslims sponsored the event.

I hasten to add that I’m sure most journalists aren’t consciously covering Muslims more negatively - meaning the problem can’t simply be solved by anti-discrimination lawsuits - but editors and reporters both need to work harder to avoid inflammatory language and systematic stigmatization.

This can be done. It used to be commonplace for news outlets to associate crime stories with images of minorities. Making journalists aware of this practice meant that it’s substantially faded.

At a time when minorities are feeling particularly vulnerable, our media, at the very least, have a responsibility to avoid inadvertently reinforcing stereotypes. The quality of our lives as Vermonters - and as Americans - depends on this effort.