UKREN blog

Monday 14 December 2015

Does the popular media play a role in perpetuating hate ‘crime’?: myths, storms, and going viral


Two media mini-maelstroms stories in two months. The first- an obvious contender for discussion around misreporting and the perpetuation of ‘hate crime’, was The Sun’s front-page headline on November 23rd 2015, which declared that one in five ‘Brit Muslims’ had “sympathy for jihadis”.

I should clarify that the term ‘hate crime’ is typically used to describe an attack motivated by prejudice. This could be a violent physical attack, but the definition also includes verbal and other forms of assault, such as distributing hateful or hate-inciting literature or materials. We should also acknowledge at this point that the term ‘crime’ is problematic, as legal and judicial structures and processes disproportionately criminalise specific communities, people, and activities- particularly affecting people of colour, migrant communities, and people with insecure immigration status. But this is a topic for a whole other blog post!

Criticisms of the headline published in November by The Sun (a tabloid arguably not best-known for its sound moral and ethical code), included concern that the sample of people surveyed by pollster Survation to explore ‘Brit Muslims’’ “sympathy for jihadis” was not large enough, or geographically varied enough to be representative of public opinion.

The interviewees, chosen at random from a phone book on the basis of having ‘Muslim-sounding names’, were asked how far they agreed with the statement: “I have a lot of sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria”. Critics suggested that the question was unclear, and failed to specify whether the survey was referring to young people fighting in support of, or in resistance to, ISIS (again- presumably) in Syria. Pamela Duncan, writing for the Guardian on the day that the headline was published points out that “it is conceivable that some of those polled could have been thinking of […] recorded instances of individuals travelling to Syria to fight against Isis (including a recent Channel 4 documentary which followed three former soldiers who travelled to fight against Isis militants in Syria)”.

The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) reported that they had received a record number of complaints about the headline (over 1,200 messages), based on a potential breach of Clause 1 of IPSO’s Editors’ Code of Practice which outlines the Press’ obligation not to publish “inaccurate, misleading or distorted information”.

Humza Yousaf, the Scottish Minister for External Affairs and International Development, said that the article was “inflammatory, flawed and puts Muslims at risk of further abuse”. Whilst The Sun is yet to apologise for this headline, The Times also ran a piece on the Survation survey, and later issued a correction.

A question emerges here around the media’s obligation to produce fair and accurate reporting. We must situate this discussion in a time when, as the ONS reported in 2013, 55% of adults in the UK are accessing news online- a statistic that has almost tripled since 2007. If we examine the 25-34 year old age bracket, this statistic climbs to a dizzying 72%.

What difference does this make? Well, the exponentially swelling ‘swipe-and-you-miss-it’ online news culture means that journalists must churn out daily wads of juicy, succinctly-worded clickbait, whilst also ensuring that their work is accurate, cleanly-sourced, fair, and representative.

In 2013 Farhad Manjoo wrote a piece for Slate which explained that most people reading news articles online only scroll down to read about 50-60% of a given piece. Unless the nuances or context of a headline are fully realised in the first half of a piece, most online readers will ‘bounce’ to another website, likely carrying a degree of misinformation. The US’ Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics, addresses this concern quite plainly, advising that journalists should “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story”, but a similar obligation does not exist within IPSO’s guidelines in the UK.

Sociologist Barbara Perry surmises that “Hate crime is an expression of  the biases that are diffused throughout the culture and history in which it is embedded”. It is evident that hate-inciting misinformation undoubtedly fuels abusive actions against particular communities, such as the attacks against Muslims reported by the Herald Scotland and the Independent after the ‘Charlie Hebdo’, and November 2015 Paris attacks. Victim support and advocacy group TellMAMA has logged a 300% spike in attacks against the Muslim community in the past month; an incident was reported just last week when a man was forced off a London tube train after being accused of using an iPad ‘suspiciously’.

To return to Manjoo’s examination of online news consumption: according to web traffic analysis firm Chartbeat, there is an extraordinarily weak correlation between users who read 100% of an article, and users who share the piece on a social media platforms such as Twitter or Facebook. In fact, Manjoo posits, most ‘sharers’ will Tweet or post an article having only read the headline and the header image.

These findings are important, because the way in which people digest and distribute news information in the UK has real-world consequences. For example, a report by Disability Information Scotland in 2011 drew a concrete link between “newspaper stories of fraud and ‘scroungers’”, and hate crimes. Similarly, in a Commons debate on disability hate crime, Anne McGuire, then Labour Shadow Disabled People’s Minister raised concerns about the “dramatic increase in the number of media articles related to disability fraud”, and the distortion of figures in popular media which has “changed the landscape for disabled people”.

Unaffiliated Twitter account @SunApology, which Tweets The Sun’s corrections, clarifications, and inaccuracies to its 10k follower base, remarked that “[The Sun’s] shoddy journalism has caused heartache for many, whether it’s victims of phone hacking, relatives of those killed at Hillsborough, the countless thousands legitimately receiving benefits demonised as “scroungers”, refugees escaping untold horrors overseas, or political foes”. With respect to headline-fuelled Islamophobia, this ‘heartache’ seeps beyond emotional trauma, and into a daily beligerence endured by people of colour as a result of scare-mongering and- at best- plain irresponsible reportage. Reflecting on the reportage around the murder of her friend Alan Henning in 2014 by ISIS on local news website Mancunian Matters, Dr Shameela Islam-Zulfiqar from advocacy organisation Muslim Engagement and Development (MEND) commented that she resents the “gradual but constant negative media focus” which she fears will only serve to ‘legitimise and reinforce’ Islamophobia.

In a piece about racism and the media, Yasmin Jiwani, from Canadian group Stop Racism provides suggested guidelines and recommendations for journalistic reporting about ‘racial minorities’. These include the recommendation that journalists should “be aware that news plays a critical role in shaping a climate of opinion about a group of people”. Jiwani notes that the media “provides us with definitions about who we are as a nation [...] and most importantly, they perpetuate certain ways of seeing the world and peoples within that world”.

The second recent media frenzy surrounds a stabbing that occurred outside Leytonstone station in London on Saturday 5th December 2015. The subsequent trial revealed that the man who had committed the stabbing suffers from mental health problems. In fact, the police had been called by his family three weeks prior to the incident on Saturday to assess the man’s mental state, as he had reported experiencing hallucinations.

However, the popular media chose to report the story from a very different angle- particular focus was given to the fact that the man shouted “this is for Syria”, before stabbing the victim. On 7th December, The Telegraph ran a piece entitled “Leytonstone terror attack”; the BBC opted for “Leytonstone Tube station stabbing a 'terrorist incident'”; the Metro referred to the “Leytonstone tube terror attack”, and The Independent described the “horror of ‘terror attack’ on streets of London”.

Speaking on the Andrew Marr show just one day later, Conservative MP Iain Duncan Smith said "We cannot let these sort of people, terrorists etc, actually dominate our space”. Duncan Smith’s comment perfectly demonstrates the real danger of media misrepresentation in action: a person with mental health problems becomes a terrorist, who becomes “these sort of people, terrorists, etc”.

The social media storm which followed the Leytonstone stabbing was focused on the trending Twitter hashtag: #YouAintNoMuslimBruv, a phrase claimed to have been shouted by a witness at the scene on Saturday. Whilst a mass of Twitter users found sense and solace in the separation this hashtag drew between the stabbing, and the Muslim community, others tired of the seemingly constant need to defend and explain themselves as apart from ‘terrorist’ groups and rogue assailants that right-wing media outlets are ever keen to conflate Muslims with.

An Evening Standard print article this week was entitled “Why I don’t hate Muslims by a soldier who lost leg”. The tone of the headline was premised on the alarming assumption that the casual reader would presume that a British soldier who was injured in Iraq would of course ‘hate’ Muslims. The big ‘reveal’ of the piece was that the soldier didn’t in fact ‘hate’ Muslims, not because he has a basic respect for all human beings regardless of their religious beliefs, but because the nurses and doctors who helped him in his recovery were Muslims. An anonymous commenter wrote on Facebook: “should I be grateful that he doesn't hate me? is it relevant that he lost his leg? where was he stationed? how many people did he injure or kill? if people have to publicly explain why they don't hate my ethno-religious group, how many people DO hate us? I'm not sure who this article is aimed at, Muslims (to reassure) or non-Muslims (to convince), but it definitely wasn't nice to see”.

So, how does de-contextualised reporting and the perpetuation of hate crimes by the news media relate to the work that UKREN does?

The EU referendum is just around the corner (well, at some point in the next 12 months...), and people in the UK who qualify for a vote will be asked their opinion on whether Britain should stay in, or leave the EU. I’m pessimistic in my assumption that certain news outlets will be jumping on every bandwagon provided by David Cameron’s demands for remaining in the EU- including a planned four-year wait for migrant workers before they can claim in-work benefits.

A good defence against the tides of sensationalised headlines is to be informed, and to look at the ‘story’ from both sides. Arguably, this is one of the key tenets of journalistic work, but perhaps we can no longer rely on media codes of ethics, in a climate where public opinion can spin on a hashtag, and acts of verbal and physical abuse are fuelled by articles which are Tweeted into the unfettered chasm of  cyberspace by people who haven’t even read them.

By Leah Cowan

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