Some US Muslims identify less as Americans due to negative media coverage

Two Muslim women holding posters of woman wearing stars and stripes hijab
Negative news coverage can discourage Muslim in the U.S. from identifying with American society, a new study finds. (Image by StockSnap from Pixabay)

Negative media portrayals of Muslim Americans can have adverse effects on how they view themselves as citizens and their trust in the U.S. government.

In fact, these effects may be stronger than the impact caused by personal discrimination, according to a new study co-authored by Magdalena Wojcieszak, a UC Davis associate professor of communication who researches the effects of media on tolerance, perceptions and polarization.

“This establishes media as a powerful agent shaping people’s feelings, attitudes, and perceptions, and also shows that media organizations should be aware that the way they discuss minority groups may have concrete consequences,”  Wojcieszak said. 

The findings, by Wojcieszak and colleagues at the University of Michigan and Texas A&M University, were published in the Journal of Communication.

Study timed around 2016 elections

“There has been an increasing concern regarding the extent to which racial and ethnic minorities in the United States identify as Americans and support American values,” the researchers wrote. “Although many of these concerns are targeted towards immigrants, even nonimmigrant minorities face criticisms of being unpatriotic and disloyal to their American national identity.”

The researchers examined how young Muslim Americans’ identification with their American and Muslim identities change over time as a function of discrimination and exposure to negative media coverage of their group. The sample involved 237 participants, many of whom identified as Arab and South Asian, and their answers were recorded in three waves collected before and after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.

Respondents replied to questions of being personally discriminated against, perceptions of news media coverage of Muslims, their strength of American and Muslim identification, and their trust in the U.S. government.

Portrait photo of UC Davis expert on media and tolerance
Magdalena Wojcieszak

Discrimination did not affect how respondents identified themselves — a finding that surprised researchers who initially thought this negative action would lower American identification over time.

“One reason for this could be due to the increased media coverage of negative remarks made by several U.S. presidential candidates during the 2016 election,” said study lead author Muniba Saleem, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Michigan. “This can increase the salience of media in people’s minds as well as increase perceptions of group discrimination.”

Negative news about Muslims, however, significantly reduced the strength of respondents identifying as Americans and weakened their trust in the U.S. government. But neither discrimination nor negative news coverage influenced the respondents’ strength of identification as a Muslim, the study showed.

“Given what is happening in the world and the tensions surrounding Muslim minorities, this study is very timely,” Wojcieszak said. “What is remarkable about our findings is that exposure to negative media portrayals of Muslims decreased their identification with the American society more strongly than personal experiences of discrimination based on religion."

The researchers point to some limitations of their study, including not knowing how older adults would respond to identity threats (their research focused on younger adults), and uncertainty about how Muslim Americans who do not strongly identify as an American are likely to consider some news coverage as negative and biased when it is, in fact, neutral.

Slowing integration into U.S. society

The bottom line, which isn’t surprising, according to the researchers: showing Muslims as terrorists and radical extremists in mainstream media can distance Muslims from successfully integrating within American society and further trusting in its political institutions.

The study’s other authors include Ian Hawkins and Miao Li of the University of Michigan and Srividya Ramasubramanian of Texas A&M University.

— This article was adapted from a University of Michigan news release.