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Terrorism and the Media: Why it Breeds Anti-Muslim Prejudice

The world is still shaken by the brutal violence that took place in Orlando on June 12th. Because information travels so quickly, it wasn’t long before the news of the Orlando shooting appeared on social media, TV, and the radio. Just as quickly, the masses began voicing their reactions. Calls for increased gun control surged with greater fervor. Discussions of homophobia and hate crimes emerged. And because of the shooter’s background and claimed ties to ISIS, anti-Muslim sentiment swelled yet again.

terrorism and the mediaThere are plenty of people who quickly place blame for these horrific events squarely on Muslims as a whole, going so far as to suggest banning all Muslims from entering the United States. [1]  Never mind that many of the other cases of mass violence that have plagued the United States were committed by non-Muslim individuals. There seems to be a knee-jerk reaction in the face of such cases of terrorism to double down on ethnic and religious prejudice.

But why? You might think that these attacks merely highlight individual people who have committed devastating acts and who also happen to belong to a particular group–in this case, Muslims or Arabs. The intense negativity someone feels about the individual may then wrongly get applied to the whole group. This is something called illusory correlation, and it’s probably part of the story.

Recent research proposes another explanation, though. According to some psychologists, when the media cover cases of terrorism, it makes us seriously think about death, and those thoughts fuel prejudice.

What’s Death Got to Do With It?

I don’t think I’m being too controversial when I say that people don’t like to think about death. It’s unpleasant. For more than 30 years, though, social psychologists have been studying just how unpleasant it is.

According to a prominent theory–Terror Management Theorywhen people think about death, it does more than just bum them out. Lots of studies now show that when people ponder their own mortality, it makes them anxious and desperate to feel better about things. This usually drives people to seek out a kind of symbolic immortality by latching onto a cultural worldview.

As such, one response people have to thinking about death is to increase prejudice toward other groups

Maybe you see where I’m going with this. What if widespread media coverage of terrorism provokes people’s thoughts about death in a way that fuels anti-Muslim prejudice?

One set of researchers conducted some studies to see if this was the case. They showed some people media coverage of terrorist attacks, and they showed a different set of people media coverage of the Olympics. Then, using a sneaky method, they were able to see how much everyone had “death on the mind.” Essentially, they gave everyone a simple puzzle with various incomplete words that they had to fill in. Many of these puzzles (e.g., “D E A _”) could be filled in with death-related words (like “D E A D”) or non-death-related words (like “D E A F”).

People who had seen media coverage of a terrorist attack ended up thinking about death more than people who saw non-terrorism-related media.[2]  Quick caveat in the interest of transparency–halfway through the study, there actually was a highly publicized act of terrorism in the Netherlands, where the study was being conducted. After this event, everyone had death on the mind, regardless of the media coverage they saw in the experiment. Another study by these researchers also showed that seeing media coverage of terrorism also led to greater anti-Arab prejudice among a group of non-Muslim people.[3]  Another thing worth mentioning is that it also led to greater anti-European prejudice among a group of Muslim people. In other words, having “death on the mind” doesn’t just result in prejudice against Muslims–it results in prejudice against other groups in general.

Self-Esteem Can Halt Anti-Muslim Prejudice

So there seems to be some evidence that media coverage of terrorism can breed anti-Muslim prejudice simply because it provokes people’s collective anxieties about death and mortality. But what’s interesting about this explanation is that it means that there are some other factors the might be important. One of them is self-esteem.

terrorism05You might think this is a weird time to bring up self-love and patting oneself on the back, but psychologists have known for a while that thinking about death has less of an impact on people with high self-esteem.  So if this is the case, it means that having high self-esteem should protect against the terrorism-prejudice link.

In another study, the researchers again had people see media coverage of a terrorist threat or of animal abuse. The people who saw the terrorism article ended up with more death on the mind, and they also ended up showing more anti-Arab prejudice than the people who saw the animal abuse article. More importantly, when people read about terrorism, they had less anti-Arab prejudice if they had higher self-esteem. Lower self-esteem was associated with more prejudice.

This is an important point because it’s more evidence that prejudice is a reaction to the anxiety that comes from terrorism and the media. If this was just all about illusory correlations and general hatred, then self-esteem probably wouldn’t matter. But it does! (Quick side note–you might remember a recent post about how Tylenol can also reduce death-related anxiety).

Terrorism and the Media

This research provides interesting insight into what’s going on these days. With lots of media coverage of what seems to be a terrorist attack and plenty of anti-Muslim sentiment, it’s worth considering how much of this reaction is a response to death-related anxiety. I certainly wouldn’t say that this is the whole story, and any events as tragic and nuanced as the one last weekend will have their own nuanced effects.

I also wanted to take a quick second to mention that it’s not clear how much death-related thoughts actually provoke this prejudice. These studies seemed to have mixed or weak evidence that having “death on the mind” and harboring anti-Arab prejudice were related to each other. Instead, we know that media coverage of terrorism leads to both of these outcomes, but it’s worth mentioning that these effects might end up being somewhat separate. The researchers certainly argue that prejudice results from thinking about death, but it may be worth avoiding strong claims at this point.

Overall, it’s clear that exposure to acts of terrorism fuel prejudice. Does knowing this help us discuss issues of mass violence more effectively? It’s hard to say, but let us know in the comments if you have any thoughts on this. In the meantime, just understand that it can be hard to know how to react in the wake of such devastating violence. But jumping immediately to expressing hatred toward a whole group may not be the rational way forward.

Footnotes   [ + ]

1.  Never mind that many of the other cases of mass violence that have plagued the United States were committed by non-Muslim individuals.
2.  Quick caveat in the interest of transparency–halfway through the study, there actually was a highly publicized act of terrorism in the Netherlands, where the study was being conducted. After this event, everyone had death on the mind, regardless of the media coverage they saw in the experiment.
3.  Another thing worth mentioning is that it also led to greater anti-European prejudice among a group of Muslim people. In other words, having “death on the mind” doesn’t just result in prejudice against Muslims–it results in prejudice against other groups in general.

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