The mass media, in all of its forms, is a very pervasive and inevitably influential force on the lives of those that consume it. The media produces consistent messaging that infiltrates every area of a person, including their actions, behaviors, value systems and beliefs. As informative and life-changing as media can be, it can also produce negative effects within communities. This paper will examine the role of the media in creating and maintaining ethnic stereotypes, most notably in crime reporting and the treatment of Muslims in a post-9/11 world, to provide specific examples. The media is an influential force and people consume it in some form every day thanks to the digital revolution and the Internet of things. The paper will examine how stereotypes translate into differing levels of behavior from casual racism and prejudice to even violence, as has been evident in the world in this allegedly “post-racial” society.
Keywords: African Americans, discrimination, ethnicity, Islamophobia mass media, media, stereotypes
The media, be it news, radio or newspapers, has been the source of information and entertainment in American society and has been credited as the most influential force in terms of individual and collective thoughts, opinions, beliefs and behaviors. Since the digital revolution has encompassed the way that mass media and communications work, the news media is a perpetuating force in the lives of citizens. The goal of news media is to present an interesting enough story to its readers to increase and retain viewership. The duty of the media is also to unapologetically inform the media in the most unfiltered and purest way possible.
Media infiltrates the perceptions of its readers and viewers with continual and pervasive messaging that have an inevitable effect on beliefs and values, both positively and negatively. In the initial eras of television and other forms of media, those that worked in the field were predominantly White and likely held values and belief systems that were discriminatory against people of color and other minority groups. How media was formed and disseminated was directly linked to the people that controlled the messaging. For example, differences in media reporting of crimes and incidences that involve race or socioeconomic status can create an implicit racial bias, which is often found in criminal news reporting.
Historical racism toward African Americans consists of stereotyped characteristics, such as a predisposition toward violence and crime which have contributed to the heightened fear among Caucasians of victimization by them and other racial minorities. Media exposure contributes to such a fear by disproportionately showing racial minorities as criminal suspects rather than their Caucasian counterparts. Murder and similar crimes certainly have an impact on the community, but when one group or several groups are perpetrated as inherently violent or with a propensity for crime more than another, it only contributes to the stereotype. The mass media is so pervasive in influencing the thoughts and behaviors of the public that it plays an important role in the creation and perpetuation of stereotypes.
The media has managed to invoke images of violence without realizing its effects on the public. Martina Feilzer of Bangor University (2007) argued that news media is passive in realizing the societal impact of media representations of crime and criminal justice, neglecting how rampant reporting on crime can desensitize a community to seeing such, as well as contradiction itself when it eschews attempts of others to influence the media. Realistically (and fortunately), most people’s beliefs about crime were not formed from personal experience, but instead media depictions and illustrations of crime and criminals.
There is not enough space nor airtime to cover all types of crime, thus, violent crimes are reported to gain attention of the public, from the truly bizarre to the inhumane. This accomplishes the media’s goal of attracting viewers and remaining a staple in the lives of citizens. Sensational news like crimes grip the imaginations of readers, viewers and Internet browsers alike, and with crime being a central theme to entertainment elsewhere, the boundaries between information and entertainment have been inextricably blurred. The fascination with the “underside,” as Ken Dowler et al. (2006) describe, that society has is linked to the need to categorize socially. Psychologically speaking, there is a distinct group of people described as the “others,” who are unfavorable or unsightly for some reason or another. In this case, it is criminality and deviance that deems them the “other.” This, and the selective nature of crime news, play on the fears of news readers and viewers, creating a distorted picture of how crime and criminality are represented in the media and how often it is perpetuated in reality.
For example, as a result of terrorist attacks, namely the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York, there has been an increase in Islamophobia and hate crimes. This uptick in violent crimes, prejudice and stereotyping presents as a form of moral panic, not unlike the McCarthyism or Red Scare of times past. 9/11 drastically changed the lives of American Muslims forever, some even saying that they categorize their lives as “pre-9/11” and “post-9/11.” Muslims Americans have become one of the most targeted religious groups in the United States. In the days and weeks after 9/11, an FBI report found that hate crimes associate with Islam jumped 1,600 percent and now, Islamophobic crimes are five times more common than they were prior to the attacks. Muslim Americans have seen their religion transformed into something sinister or a threat instead of a sacred religion as they view it to be. Today, hate crimes towards Islamic people and Muslims are five times as high and more common than they were prior to the events of 9/11. Anti-Muslim discrimination and violence have placed ongoing pressure on the Muslim population as it permeates every part of their lives, particularly air travel and just being a visible Muslim in general. A fear, hatred and hostility toward them is perpetuated by negative stereotypes and leads to the marginalization and violence against Muslim in all areas of society and daily life.
As Lydia Connor for the Huffington Post explains, after the attacks of September 11, Arabs and Muslims were expected to be “model citizens” in the public eye. This new dynamic of being a “good” Muslim also reflected in media. In a “post-racial” and post-9/11 era, there was an increase in sympathetic portrayals of Muslims in American television and film to offset the negative depiction as a result of historical precedent, racism and the events of September 11. This portrayal was so pervasive that the president at the time, George W. Bush, made sure to distinguish between the country’s Muslim “friends” and enemies: “The enemy of America is not our many Muslim friends; it is not our many Arab friends. Our enemy is a radical network of terrorists, and every government that supports them.” 9/11 marked an irrevocably new existence for Muslim Americans, as they have become one of the most targeted religious groups in the United States. Muslims report not feeling respected by Westerners, and this even continues worldwide—a disrespect of Muslim societies and their identity.
The concept of media influencing racism and prejudice in the public is evident in research that investigates and targets media bias, stating that it is necessary to explore how media contributes to racism explicitly and implicitly. Media has failed to accomplish any means or goals of neutrality in not only news reporting, but television, film and even music. With the advent of technology and an unwavering digital revolution, most people use some form of media in their everyday lives, whether it is their cell phone, tablet, television, laptop or the radio. The mass media is a continual force in the lives of people, pushing persistent messaging with very rarely any breaks in time. In this era of excessive consumption, the effect that media has on the way people live is indubitable and inevitable. It can educate, empower and sometimes even enrage into action.
However, what the media can do negatively is present stereotypes even in this alleged “post-racial” world that do not do anything to ameliorate and prevent the ways in which stereotypes manifest in society, in ways like discrimination prejudice and even violence. The media’s role in creating and maintaining stereotypes is both unfortunate and inevitable, which get in the way of creating a more understanding and compassionate society.
- Alsultany, E. (2013). Arabs and Muslims in the media after 9/11: Representational strategies for a” postrace” era. American Quarterly, 65(1), 161-169.
- Dowler, K., Fleming, T., & Muzzatti, S. L. (2006). Constructing Crime: Media, Crime, and Popular Culture. Canadian Journal of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 48, 6.
- Feilzer, M. Y. (2007). Criminologists making news? Providing factual information on crime and criminal justice through a weekly newspaper column. Crime, Media, Culture, 3(3), 285-304.
- Graber, D. (2003). The media and democracy: Beyond myths and stereotypes. Annual review of political science, 6(1), 139-160.
- O’Connor, L. (2016, September 12). How 9/11 Changed These Muslim Americans’ Lives Forever. Retrieved September 12, 2017, from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/post-911-islamophobia_us_57d075dfe4b0a48094a75bc1