Why you should care
Because staying informed might actually be making you (yes, you!) more prejudiced.
We all have that racist aunt, or that friend who says questionable things about the news without really understanding what’s going on. But staying well-informed helps the masses understand nuance and avoid the prejudices of ignorance, right? Not so fast. Recent research suggests that:
The more news you watch, the more Islamophobic you become.
And, crucially, that effect holds across the political spectrum — “every hour that anybody watches more news, the more prejudiced they become,” says lead researcher John Shaver, a lecturer in religion at the University of Otago in New Zealand. The study, published in the PLOS ONE journal in March, took data from the New Zealand Attitudes and Values Study to analyze the correlation between the answers respondents gave for how much news they watch or read per week and their self-reported ratings on how much anger and warmth they feel toward Muslims, who account for about 1 percent of the country’s population. The effect was small: Comparing the average news abstainer to a junkie consuming 15 hours of news a week, self-reported anger ticked up on average from just under 3.1 to over 3.2 on a scale of one to seven, and there was an equivalent decrease in warmth. Nevertheless, with a sample size of more than 16,500, the results are statistically significant.
The finding that the correlation was equally strong on both sides of the political spectrum came as a surprise.
New Zealand consistently ranks among the top three most tolerant nations, according to global surveys. Most previous research tends to show that media bias entrenches pre-existing beliefs, so the researchers thought that New Zealand could prove a good test case to see whether the media could actually make already tolerant Kiwis even more tolerant. The finding that the correlation between media consumption and Islamophobia was equally strong on both sides of the political spectrum came as a surprise.
Due to the methodological complexity of the field of media effects, “it’s no surprise that people are coming across a finding that contradicts a previous one,” says professor Matthew Hughey, who studies racialization and the media at the University of Connecticut. The study may explain more about whiteness than it does about how people on both the left and the right react to biased media representations, says Hughey — “attitudes about race are not distillable to politics,” so rather than contradicting conventional wisdom about media effects, it might instead be the case that all of the study respondents, predominantly of European descent, might harbor pre-existing Islamophobic beliefs.
Although, of course, correlation does not equal causation, the researchers think their findings do indeed point to media-induced Islamophobia because they also tested for the media effects on bias against Asians and Arabs. The overwhelming majority of New Zealand’s Muslims are Asian, and yet most press depictions of Muslims come from international reports about Arab Muslims. The fact that anti-Muslim prejudice was correlated with anti-Arab feelings, and not with anti-Asian feelings, suggests that Islamophobic attitudes are “unlikely to come from direct exposure” to the country’s Muslim community, says co-author Joseph Bulbulia, a professor at Victoria University in Wellington. Instead, they come from media consumption. The effect is “likely not unique to Islam,” says Shaver, citing other minority groups such as African Americans about whom, in an increasingly segregated world, many people’s first impressions are also formed via secondhand sources.
So the next time your family’s dinner table conversation edges toward the unsavory, don’t blame your parents’ penchant for certain news channels over others — news consumption of any kind could be the true enemy.