Minority groups - especially Muslims - are often put in negative frames by the western media and are often topic of discussion. Remarkably enough, Muslims often do not have a place at the table where they are criticized.
Media and minorities
On 4 November 2015, a news article written by Sebastiaan Quekel appeared on the website of Omroep Brabant (Omroep Brabant, 2015). The headline of the article listened as follows: ‘Moroccan drug criminal threw boiling water over Dalfour and shot him dead after a rip deal’. Apart from the bizar headline of the article, the question rises to what extent the fact that the criminal is Moroccan actually matters? In addition, the possibility that the drug criminal, Samir T., also had a Belgian passport seemed not to be taken in consideration. This is just one of many examples in which ethnicity has been presented by news media in such a way that the viewers are made to believe that it contributes to the news story, but in fact it only leads to more prejudices and discrimination towards minority groups and division among the members of society. Why does the media frame minority groups the way they do? How is this done? What are the effects of these negative frames? This article will explore these questions.
Why do the media frame minorities the way they do?
The question ‘Why does the media frame minority groups the way they do?’ is probably the most difficult question to answer. According to Wimmer (2005) one should be careful to avoid assuming communitarian closure, cultural difference, and shared identity. Studies have to ask, rather than assume. After all, humans are all individuals with their own ideas, thoughts, beliefs and behaviors.
In a study about the media coverage on British Muslims, Saeed (2007) rightly states that followers of Islam in the UK are a heterogeneous group comprising of many different ethnic backgrounds. In other words, what does Omroep Brabant (2015) actually tell us by stating that the drug criminal has a Moroccan background? The fact that the criminal has a Moroccan background does not tell us much. Furthermore, it is highly questionable if the criminal had been, for example, Dutch or German, it would be mentioned by the media in the same explicit way as it was done here. What is trying to communicated? And even more importantly, why is this being done?
The fact that the criminal has a Moroccan background does not tell us much.
A possible explanation comes from the field of politics. Kuypers (2002) addressed this topic in his book Press Bias and Politics. He mentions the term ‘agenda-building’ which indicates that media have a certain agenda apart from simply bringing the news. An example for this was the case of former Yugoslavian president, Slobodan Milosevic. During the NATO bombings, Milosevic was often described as an ‘evil dictator’ or ‘a cruel and determined enemy’. Therefore, the opinion of the public was influenced in a way that the vast majority of the public became pro-bombing parts of Yugoslavia. It illustrates the political influence the media have . The connotations with Milosevic would have been significantly different if the news media had constantly referred to him as ‘the president of Yugoslavia’.
From that perspective, the influence of Omroep Brabant on the process of opening refugee centers in Brabant should not be underestimated. This topic is highly sensitive at the moment and recently caused riots in the village Heesch during a meeting about whether or not they would take in 500 refugees (NOS, 2015). By constantly giving negative connotations to the Muslim minority, as we have seen in the case of the 'Moroccan drug dealer', it is inevitable that a large part of the audience will have preconceived negative perceptions regarding the acceptance of Muslim refugees. Another more profound problem regarding news coverage of Muslims in Western media, is that the terms ‘Islam’ and ‘Muslim’ have been misused as a ‘political cover’ for much that is not religious (Said as cited in Saeed, 2007). Subsequently, the media reports on Muslim terrorists, but are these terrorists actually Muslim? The vast majority of the Muslims probably think they are not.
The choice of words is very important. For example, as soon as 'asylum seekers' are described as ‘illegal immigrants’, the debate can easily cross over to the issue of negative effects from a multiracial society (Kundnani, as cited in Saeed ,2007). The media has the power to influence and to make changes by choosing their headlines and topics, but very little is known about the mechanisms behind it.
How do the media frame minorities?
Shadid (2009), an expert regarding the way Dutch media presents Muslims, identified four frames that influence the image of Muslims in a negative way: the ethnocentrism frame, the stigmatizing frame, the cultural-generalization frame and the layman frame. These frames have a commonality that they highlight Muslims and Islam overwhelmingly negative. The ethnocentrism frame stresses contradictions between certain groups of people. Their culture versus ours and them against us.. It stresses the ethnical ancestry of Muslims and barely reports news about racism and discrimination.
The stigmatizing frame represents Muslims and immigrants as 'problem groups'. As in the case with Omroep Brabant (2015), muslims and immigrants are connected to crime, abuse of social services, terrorism and drugs. Especially in regards to terrorism, the mass media plays a crucial role since the New York attacks on 9/11 in 2001 (Altheide, 2006). They created a nightmare vision, and Muslims (and the Islamic faith) in particular were strongly connected to this. The consequence of drawing this nightmare picture by the mass media regarding Islam and terrorism is that it influences the perception of millions of people towards Muslims. Of course, problems regarding violence inspired by certain flows, ideas and beliefs derived from the Koran should not be underestimated or kept silent, but caution, accuracy and a certain level of objectivity should be taken into consideration while dealing with these topics. The effects of portrayals like the stigmatizing frame can be dangerous.
Another frame mentioned by Shadid (2009) is the layman frame. The main feature of this frame is that Muslims get relatively few chances to express their opinion, and if they do so, they are portrayed as inexperts. Back in 2011, the Dutch parlement discussed about a so-called ‘allochtonen-quotum’ at the public broadcasting. The government made an agreement with the ‘Nederlandse Publieke Omroep’, abbreviated as NPO, that they should be a reflection of the whole society (Elsevier, 2011). In turn, the NPO decided to handle this controversial quotum. The Dutch parlement was highly against this due to discrimination-reasons. The problem with this effort is that even when minority groups are better represented on public broadcasting, it is still a question of how it is done. How are migrants portrayed and in what role? It comes to implementation. The NPO diversity monitor from 2008 (as cited in Saeed, 2009), showed that only a very low percentage of the colored persons on Dutch public broadcasting had valued functions like an interviewer, an expert, or a spokesperson.
Mass media created a nightmare vision of terrorism connected to Muslims and the Islamic faith.
The fourth and final frame mentioned by Saaed (2009) is the cultural-generalization frame. With the help of this frame, multiple Dutch-immigrant groups are presented as one homogenous Muslim group. Problems with generalizability were already addressed by inter alia Wimmer (2005), but according to Saeed (2009) the major problem is that the frame ignores the the uniqueness of the individual. In other words, ‘The Muslims’ do not exist. However, in the media ‘The Muslims’ are often referred to as a homogeneous group while, in fact, this group is highly divers on all kinds of levels.
What are the effects of media framing?
The effects of framing has been a topic of research in various studies. For example, Gieling, Thijs & Verkuyten (2011), showed with an experiment that native adolescents in the Netherlands were more tolerant towards the practices of Muslim immigrants in cases where the frame supported the Muslim practices. On the other hand, the native adolescents became less tolerant when considerations against these practices were presented. This example shows the influence of the way in which stories are presented on people’s attitudes. However, the complexity of framing effects centers around the extent 'negative attitudes' regarding immigrant minorities can be assigned, to the way the media present certain issues.
Nacos and Torres-Reyna (2003) cited a review from amazone.com in order to express one of the problems regarding the image of Muslims: “The reason why many Arab- and Muslim Americans are discriminated, is that people probably think of the ‘TV-Arab image (i.e., suicide bomber, fanatics, lazy etc.).” They say that this image has been amplified by inter alia authors who became aware that books with Muslims portrayed as bombers or terrorists were very popular.
According to the 'American Muslim Poll' that questioned Muslims right after the events of 9/11, 68% of respondants said that the news media were not fair in their portrayal of Muslims and Islam (Nacos & Torres-Reyna, 2003). This high percentage has two aspects that need to be highlighted.
First of all, as mentioned before, this negative presentation of Muslims and Islam by the mass media has consequences regarding people’s attitudes towards Muslims and Islam in general. Fishbein and Azjen (1974) already explained the relationship between attitudes and behavior in 1974. According to them, attitudes are predictors for behavior; so in other words, negative attitudes towards Muslims may be a predictor of negative behavior such as discrimination.
On the other side, the fact that a lot of Muslims feel discriminated against has consequences too. The Dutch ‘Sociaal en Cultureel Planbureau’ (abbreviated as SCP) asked 3000 Dutch youngsters with a Turkish or Moroccan background to what extent they feel part of Dutch Society (NU, 2015). Approximately half of the youngsters responded that they feel more connected to their Turkish/Moroccan background than to their Dutch background.
In addition, they distrust the Dutch media, the national politics and the police. It is inevitable that youngsters who have the feeling of being excluded from Dutch society will eventually behave like it. From there, the step towards illegal activities such as criminality is only a small one. Therefore, as long as the media takes ethnicity as an important factor in reporting crimes, the vicious circle will continue to exist.
Altheide, D. L. (2006). The Mass Media, Crime and Terrorism. Journal of International Criminal Justice, 4(5), 982-997.
Elsevier (2011). Kamer boos over allochtonenquotum.
Fishbein, M., & Ajzen, I. (1974). Attitudes towards objects as predictors of single and multiple behavioral criteria. Psychological review, 81(1), 59.
Kuypers, J. A. (2002). Press bias and politics: How the media frame controversial issues. Greenwood Publishing Group.
Nacos, B. L., & Torres-Reyna, O. (2003). Framing Muslim-Americans before and after 9/11. Framing terrorism: The news media, the government, and the public, 133-158.
NOS (2015). Grimmig anti asielzoekersprotest in Heesch.
- NU.nl (2015). Turkse en Marokkaanse jongeren voele zich geen deel van Nederland. Retrieved from:
Omroep Brabant (2015). Marokkaanse drugscrimineel gooide kokend heet water over Dalfour en schoot hem dood na ripdeal van 4 ton. Retrieved from:
Saeed, A. (2007). Media, racism and Islamophobia: the representation of Islam and Muslims in the media. Sociology Compass, 1(2), 443-462.
Shadid, W. (2009). Moslims in de media: de mythe van de registrerende journalistiek. Mist in de polder: Zicht op ontwikkelingen omtrent de islam in Nederland, 173-193.
Wimmer, A. (2009). Herder's Heritage and the Boundary-Making Approach: Studying Ethnicity in Immigrant Societies. Sociological Theory, 27, 3, 244-270