News Coverage of Rumors about Obama's Religion Wrongly Fuses Arab Ethnicity, Islam and Terrorism, Baylor Researchers Find

Dec. 10, 2010

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Despite reporters' goal of objectivity, some broadcast accounts and articles about rumors that President Barack Obama is Muslim suggest that being an Arab or a Muslim automatically is "a sinister accusation," according to a study by Baylor University researchers published online in the American Communication Journal.

The article -- "Barack Hussein Obama: Campaigning While (Allegedly) Muslim" -- was written by Dr. Mia Moody, an assistant professor of journalism and media arts at Baylor University, and Aisha Tariq of Houston, who earned a master's degree in international journalism from Baylor in May 2010.

The two did textual analyses of three articles from key sources -- Insight online magazine, The Washington Post and an article posted on Obama's website and also published in the Los Angeles Times -- and also reviewed six broadcast transcripts from Fox News and CNN.

Moody and Tariq found that members of the media have reinforced public animosity toward Arabs and Muslims, in part by fusing Arab ethnicity, Islamic faith and terrorism post-Sept. 11, 2001.

They examined news coverage between Jan. 17, 2007 (when Insight online magazine broke a story about rumors that Obama was Muslim in an article headlined "Hillary's team has questions about Obama's Muslim background") through Election Day, Nov. 5, 2008.

Textual analysis often looks at culture as a narrative in which those who produce texts or "cultural artifacts" -- such as a pop song, magazine article or television program -- either consciously or unconsciously link themselves to larger issues in society. Media framing is the way reporters portray news, including determining what is newsworthy, what can be taken for granted and how that influences audience perception.

A crucial finding by Moody and Tariq was that all of the stories -- which were intended to convey, counter or consider that rumors that Obama is a Muslim -- ignored the issue of whether accusations or defenses demonstrated hostility towards Muslims and Arabs.

Some framing tactics included use of Arabic words, highlighting parts of Obama's biography that seemed foreign and concealing information, Moody and Tariq wrote. For example, some pundits referred to Obama's middle name "Hussein;" one article never stated that Obama is Christian but rather stressed that he attended a Church of Christ but "is not known to be a regular parishioner."

While rumors initially spread via Internet and word of mouth, the article that "broke" the story was Insight online magazine's report that a campaign staffer of American presidential candidate Sen. Hillary Clinton had leaked a report to an Insight reporter. The report said that Obama had attended "a so-called Madrassa, or Muslim seminary" during his childhood in Indonesia. The article said the Clinton campaign planned to use this against him in the primary campaign.

The story then was covered by Obama's website and in The Washington Post.

Subsequent coverage by Fox and CNN examined (1) the revelation that Obama had attended an Islamic school; (2) the removal of women wearing Islamic headscarves from a visible position behind then-Sen. Obama during a rally; and (3) the publication of The New Yorker magazine cover with a satirical cartoon of Obama dressed in traditional Muslim clothes, among them a turban.

The researchers hypothesized that:

• Insight online magazine would be the heaviest user of Arab/Muslim stereotypes to discuss the rumors that Obama is a covert Muslim; and that the story would convey the least amount of facts about Obama's personal life, undermining his bid for the presidency.

• An article on Obama's website would refute accusations that he is Muslim but without condemning hostility toward Arabs/Muslims or using stereotypes; and focus on events and facts proving that Obama is a Christian.

• A story in The Washington Post would be neutral in tone but contain loaded terms used in Insight and include controversial aspects of the rumor.

• Fox News would spend more time than CNN on the accusation that Obama is Muslim and, as a conservative news outlet, more aggressively explore an issue that could harm the Democratic nominee's presidential bid.

• CNN's tone would be neutral or disinterested.

Moody and Tariq wrote that the Insight article and Obama's website promoted an agenda, while The Washington Post did not.

"All three stories utilized the inflammatory terms, though to very different ends," they wrote. "The Insight story used these charged words to strengthen the readers' association of Obama with Islam, while the article from the Obama website incorporated them into its refutation of the rumor. The Washington Post story included these terms to present a balanced account of the controversy, yet may have simultaneously spread or escalated the suspicions about Obama. The tone of these articles also varied between accusation and ridicule, with the Obama website story revealing itself the most neutral."

Moody and Tariq noted that CNN went into more depth than Fox, including devoting a panel of analysts to explore the issue as well as interviewing members of the public.

But while Fox's tone was more critical than CNN's -- "quick to highlight his weaknesses and failures" -- an unexpected finding was the degree to which CNN defended Obama, they wrote.

While Obama has condemned anti-Semitic comments, he remained largely silent about anti-Islamic comments, according to an editorial in The Nation that researchers mentioned.

The approach may have made political sense for Obama's campaign, but "the wider implications of this issue should not be overlooked," Moody and Tariq wrote. "The media's silence on this issue reveals that though Obama was on trial, Arabs and Muslims had already been condemned."

Muslims and Arabs have been demonized by the media as inherently evil enemies, Moody said.

"The rumor mill is more powerful than it has ever been, and it will undoubtedly increase in strength as people continue to use the Web to spread gossip and rumors," she said. "The rumor that Obama is Muslim began with a chain e-mail when he was running for president, and it still persists. Many intelligent people swear by it. This is a trend that will gain momentum in future elections."

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