The role of the media

© Flickr: NS Newsflash / Creative Commons 2.0
© Flickr: NS Newsflash / Creative Commons 2.0

In the course so far, we’ve explored the tenets of Islam, British Muslim communities and the diversity of individuals who inhabit them. But how are British Muslims commonly portrayed in the media?

In 2008, Justin Lewis, Paul Mason and Kerry Moore, academics from Cardiff University’s School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies, published the findings of an extensive analysis of press coverage of British Muslims, research that shaped the Channel 4 Dispatches documentary, “It shouldn’t happen to a Muslim”. They found that news stories about Muslims increased dramatically over the period between 2000 and 2008, an increase partly fuelled by the terrorist attacks in New York in 2001 and London in 2005, but also as a product of a wider preoccupation with Islam and British society. Having looked at the content of almost 1000 newspaper articles from 2000-2008 and their accompanying images, they came to a series of, perhaps troubling, conclusions.

The researchers found that the majority of the coverage of British Muslims in the British press tended to focus on a narrow range of issues and recurrent, negative types of characterisation:

  • An emphasis on terrorism, particularly in the context of the ‘war on terror’. These stories tended to remove any political motivations from acts of terrorism, focussing entirely on religious factors;
  • A representation of Islam as a ‘threat’. This kind of news coverage focussed on religious and cultural issues in terms of a perceived ideal of ‘British values’. As Lewis and Moore explain, the idea that Islam is dangerous or backward was present in 26% of the stories they surveyed, compared to the 2% of stories that proposed that British Muslims supported prevailing moral values;
  • A focus on extremism, with a recurrence of almost ‘pantomime’ images of Abu Hamza.

The authors of the report also noted the repeated use of negative language in the descriptions of British Muslims in the British press. The most common nouns invoked were terrorist, extremist, Islamist, suicide bomber and militant. The most common adjectives were: radical, fanatical, fundamentalist and extremist. As Lewis and Moore explain, in the British press from 2000-2009, references to radical Muslims outnumbered references to moderate Muslims by seventeen to one.

The images that illustrated these stories tended to fall into negative categories too: the most likely kinds of images of British Muslims in the press were police mugshots or photographs of Muslim men outside police stations or law courts. Muslims were much less likely than non-Muslims to be portrayed in positive settings, or in terms of their profession – as doctors or lawyers for example – and much more likely to be identified simply as Muslims rather than through any kind of representation that would emphasise other aspects of their identity.

The conclusion that arises is that the British press in recent decades has tended to reproduce a limited repertoire of negative images and troubling themes. Given what we have already learned in this course about the diversity of British Muslims and their day-to-day lives, this distorting focus has led to complaints that that British Muslims have been misrepresented in the news media, and that this has contributed to a lack of understanding between communities. Later in the course, we’ll explore how powerful competing representations of British Muslims, far more attuned to diversity and setting out positive images of integration, have challenged the limited depictions in the British press.


Islam UK Centre Lecture: Representations of British Muslims in the Media: Kerry Moore & Justin Lewis