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The role of the media in shaping our perception of particular groups in society


Media plays an important role in shaping the perceptions of the public about particular groups of people in the society. These perceptions are often so strong that they allow the government to structure responses to the group without invoking a public censure about such responses.

In the last one and a half decade since the terror attacks against the United States, the world, and in particular, European cities, have seen terror attacks that have been perpetrated by terrorists belonging to the Muslim faith. The reporting in the media and the analysis of these events have by and large focused on the Muslim communities across Europe. The UK too has not been immune to such terror attacks and media coverage. This has led to the creation of negative perceptions about the Muslim community in the UK.

This essay discusses the role of media with respect to the Muslim community in the UK. The essay also discusses the ability of the government to structure harsher responses driven by the panic created by the media about the Muslim community.

Impact of Media on Perceptions towards Muslims

The impact of media on the shaping of perceptions with respect to Muslims in the UK, has been a subject that has invited a lot of interest in the recent period of time. The September 11, 2001 (9/11) attacks against the United States, and the 2004 London Underground bombings have created a situation where the British Muslims also have to deal with a new kind of racism, that is, Islamophobia. One study that was related to studying the representation of Muslims in media found that prior to 9/11 attacks, there was hardly any representation of Muslims in the British media and post 9/11, whatever representation there is, has been largely negative (Jaspal & Cinnirella, 2010). The authors of the study write:

“Prior to September 11, 2001 there was but scant empirical research on newspaper representations of Muslims with the vast majority of work employing non-systematic anecdotal evidence in order to illustrate general trends in media coverage (Richardson, 2004). It was of course after this date that newspapers began to dedicate an unprecedented amount of space, time and attention to British Muslims, their differences from the ingroup and the threats they allegedly pose to the ingroup. Muslims have never before occupied such a central position in the British media, given their general absence from more ‘normalised’ representational positions such as in popular soaps, literature and reality television. This perhaps explains the primarily negative ‘hypervisibility’ of Muslims across the media, which has encouraged social representations of negativity and threat” (Jaspal & Cinnirella, 2010, p. 289).

Therefore, there is an increasing negative representation of Muslims in the media and these representations create threats to ingroups, which may be even seen as Islamophopia. This threat is hybridised because it is aimed at both physical well-being of other groups as well as cultural safety of other groups (Jaspal & Cinnirella, 2010).

Islamophobia is a hybrid racism, which although not new in Europe (Carr, 2009), it has definitely taken on new proportions and dimensions in the period since the 9/11 attacks and the many terror attacks in major European capitals, including in London. Therefore, in the contemporary period, we are witnessing Islamophobia, a kind of racism which is different in the sense that it is neither colour-coded nor non-colour coded and therefore, it is best described as hybrid. In the present period, Muslims have been subjected to unfortunate scrutiny and racialization and it is interesting to see how far this racialization can be related to the media.

At the outset, it is important to note that Islamophobia is not limited to the UK. Most of the Western world has witnessed Islamophobia to some degree. It is not even necessary that countries that have witnessed Islamophobia rise would have actually been victimized by Jihadi terrorists. For example, Canada has seen a growing Islamophobia, despite not being subject to a Jihadi terror attack and this is affecting social as well as workplace equations in Canada (Zaman, 2010). Therefore, the interrelationship between Islamophobia and media is worth studying, as the role of media may explain the growing negative perceptions about Muslims in different countries of the world, including the UK. One report points out:

“Muslims and Islam have occupied a central role in the British media following the Salman Rushdie Affair, the 2001 riots, conflicts in the Middle East and the global war on terror. Featuring also in issues surrounding multiculturalism, crime, education and faith schools, immigration, and oppressed women linked to the Burqa debate, Muslims have been the focus of numerous public issues and denunciations. The portrayal of Muslims has been largely negative and stereotypical informed often by a virulent, racialised Islamophobic discourse. This concern has been vocalised by many Muslim advocacy groups, organisations, academics and activists who argue that representations of Muslims in the British media are persistently negative, unfair and discriminatory and have subsequently contributed to establishing a climate of fear or a moral panic‘ with the Muslim folk devil‘ at its heart” (Sian, et al., 2012, p. 230).

There are two points of importance in the above statement. First, the use of negative and stereotypical portrayal of Muslims by a virulent and racialized Islamophobic discourse. Second, creation of moral panic through the negative interpretations on Muslims. These two points will be dealt with first in this essay.

The use of negative or stereotypical portrayal with respect to Muslims has been considered in different studies (Jaspal & Cinnirella, 2010). It is generally seen that the reporting on the Muslim community veers between negative reporting and the counter-arguments, whereas very little reporting is done about the positive attributes of the community.

What is moral panic and how is it created by the media and what is its impact on the perceptions of Muslims? These are some important questions. Moral panic studies were popularized by the work of Stanley Cohen, although the first notable use of the term is traced back to the work of Marshall McLuhan in 1964 (Rohloff, et al., 2013). In a widely accepted and cited study, Cohen (1972), said:

“The objects of normal moral panics are rather predictable; so too are the discursive formulae used to represent them. For example: They are new (lying dormant perhaps, but hard to recognize; deceptively ordinary and routine, but invisibly creeping up the moral horizon) – but also old (camouflaged versions of traditional and well-known evils). They are damaging in themselves – but also merely warning signs of the real, much deeper and more prevalent condition. They are transparent (anyone can see what’s happening) – but also opaque: accredited experts must explain the perils hidden behind the superficially harmless” (Cohen, 2011, p. viii).

The four formulae pointed out by Cohen (2011) are relevant to Muslims and their representations in the media and the subsequent moral panic that may be created as to the Muslims and their links to terror. The ‘new’, which is represented by the use of terror discourse in the media and its focus on Jihadi terror; the ‘old’, which is the pre-terror discourse about Muslims, which focused more on their ‘otherness’ from the English society. The Muslims have always been painted as outsiders in the European society, especially in the context of Crusades, where the distinction between Europeans and the Turks has been a point of significance in the historical discourse (Rohloff, et al., 2013). The transparent and the opague, which can be seen in first in the obvious interrelationship between terror and Muslims, and second in the use of ‘expert’ testimonies as to Muslims being more prone to joining terror groups, such as that seen in the PREVENT strategy (discussed later in the essay).

It is possible to use mass media, as a method by which meaning and interpretations are given to events. These interpretations may be picked up by a larger audience, and the ultimately lead on to the subsequent reactions. In this way, media becomes an enforcer of interpretations and ideas which impact the ideas and perceptions of others and this shows the role of media not as a neutral observer and reporter of events. Continuous reporting and talking of the event leads to the enhancement of the media narrative much beyond the event and “an ad infinitum chain of narratives” (Harris, 2014). The reporting on the 2011 London riots is relevant at this point and it shows how the reporting led on to the creation of a larger than life perceptions of the riots, not just in the UK, but in the rest of the world. The constant barrage of images in the media, from different angles, managed to create an image of the entire city of London was under siege, and this was far from fact of the actual events (Harris, 2014).

All forms of mass media, and particularly the social media, has the advantage of speed of reporting and this may be used to create images and a repertoire of events, which may not really reflect the truth about the community or the situations related to the community. Thus, it becomes easier to create moral panic amongst the users of multimedia, or even those who use the internet to read news and related analysis (France, 2007, p. 105).

The media has the capacity to shape our understandings of events and people (Critcher, 2003), leading to creation of public perceptions, which may really be based on realities. At the same time, the public belief in the verity of these perceptions leads the government to be able to show justification for the creation of programmes and policies meant to control the panic creating situation. With respect to the Muslim community, this has translated into tougher laws and social control mechanisms, which do not specifically name Muslims, but are seen to by and large be used to create social controls that impact young Muslim men in particular.

An example of the aforementioned is the counterterrorism law and policy in the UK. Of course, it does not help that statements that show Muslims in a negative light by terrorists are also in the public domain. For example, Al Zawahiri, leader of the al Qaeda, urging Muslims to undertake ‘lone wolf attacks’ against the Western society was vastly reported (Reuters, 2015).

Primarily the UK counter-terrorism legislation underwent a major rethink after the 9/11 attacks. However, the media frenzy surrounding Jihadism was so prevalent that the government was able to make substantial changes to the detention laws, allowing foreigners (read alien Muslims) to be detained indefinitely under the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001. A case decided by the House of Lords, Secretary of State v. Rehman, UKHL 47 (2001) allowed the UK government to deport a Muslim cleric because there were intelligence reports that he may be involved in terror. These events were the result of 9/11 and the subsequent media reporting leading to a panic like perception with regard to Muslims in the UK. As one author points out:

“Many expected that British courts would manifest the same deference to post 9/11 actions as they did to emergency measures taken during the two world wars. This pessimistic view was confirmed when a month after 9/11, the House of Lords unanimously upheld the decision of the Secretary of State to deport a Pakistan born Imam because the security service alleged that he was involved in terrorist activities (Roach, 2011, p. 239).

It has been said that during moral panics and media frenzies “the atypical case is compressed into general categories of crime control (such as ‘juvenile violence’). The explanatory theory is based on too few cases; injustice results by targeting too many cases” (Cohen, 2011, p. x). This was clearly witnessed in the wake of the 9/11 and then various other terror attacks around Europe. As a reaction, a greater form of social control, that impacts the Muslims in the UK greatly, has been created. This relates to immigration detention. Here, social control can be defined as “the purposive mechanisms used to regulate the conduct of the people, who are seen as deviant, criminal, worrying or troublesome in some way by the others” (Innes, 2003, p. 3). Detention is one of the three commonly used social control mechanisms of the nature of sanctions, the other two being destitution and deportation, and Muslims more than any other community in the UK is seen to be affected by it (Siriyeh, 2014, p. 81).

The Prevent policy which is a part of the CONTEST (United Kingdom’s Strategy for Countering Terrorism) policy, is focused on prevention of Britons turning to terrorism. The focus has been greatly on young Muslim men. In that sense, there have been several reports on how Prevent policy is alienating the Muslim community (Cobain, 2016). The government thinktank, Open Society Justice Initiative had recently concluded a major study and asked the government to re-think this strategy. Among the criticisms against this strategy, a major cause for concern is how this policy is focused on and affecting young Muslim men. The specific instances, which were reported in the report of the think-tank include “instances in which information was apparently gathered from Muslim primary school children without their parents’ consent; Prevent being used to bypass disciplinary processes during the attempted dismissal of a school dinner lady; a 17-year-old referred to the police by his college authorities because he had become more religious; and the cancellation of university conferences on Islamophobia” (Cobain, 2016).

Journalistic interactions with the public, which includes reporting as well as analysis, leads to the development of identities and actions (Johnson & Ensslin, 2007, p. 5). Media coverage of statements by influential leaders and politicians often finds resonance with the public (Hjarvard, 2013, p. 8). These create perceptions, which may not be justified in reality, but may be so strong in their hold on public opinion, that the government is able to use it to make policies and structure laws, in a way that would ordinarily not be possible.



Media plays an important role in structuring public as well as government responses to the Muslim community in the UK. These responses, some of which are a part of the counter-terrorism policy, have been made possible because the perceptions on Muslim community is by now well-structured. Moreover, the continuous media coverage of the interrelation between terror events and the religion of the terrorists leads to a creation of a moral panic amongst the greater public where every Muslim may be seen as a possible terrorist. This leads to the possibility for the government to respond with harsher law and policy which may impact the Muslim community more than the others.


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