RESEARCH • Media Bias

EXCERPT FROM ICMPA WEBSITE PROJECT — SEE FULL PROJECT WEBSITE HERE


Uncovering Media Bias:  The ‘Ground Zero Mosque’ Case Study


Wall Street Journal graphic of the proposed site.
Wall Street Journal graphic of the proposed site.

With support from the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations,
the International Center on Media & the Public Agenda (ICMPA), University of Maryland (USA), and the Gabinete de Comunicación y Educación from Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Spain, undertook a study to analyze how major news outlets across the globe covered the controversy over the location of a proposed community center near the former World Trade Center over a six-month period, from May-October 2010
.


The Park51 controversy began in December 2009 with the publication of a New York Times front-page story that noted that two Jewish leaders, two city officials, including the mayor’s office, and the mother of a man killed on 9/11 supported the community center, which was to include fitness facilities, a restaurant, a library, an auditorium and a mosque. 

In early May, after a unanimous vote by a New York City community board committee to approve the Park 51 project, the New York Post and AP both run a story. Blogger Pamela Geller writes a post titled “Monster Mosque Pushes Ahead in Shadow of World Trade Center Islamic Death and Destruction,” and says, “This is Islamic domination and expansionism. The location is no accident. Just as Al-Aqsa was built on top of the Temple in Jerusalem.”  Geller’s group, Stop Islamization of America (SIOA), launches “Campaign Offensive: Stop the 911 Mosque!” She encourages people to write the mayor and members of the community board. Hundreds do. The story, and the debate go national, and then international.  

See the full website of the study for a timeline of events.



ICMPA and the Gabinete de Comunicación y Educación asked a series of questions about the controversy, including:

  • What were the implications of media calling the Park51 project the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’?
  • Which media outlets “framed” the Park51 story to be about “radical Islam’?
  • Which media gave a platform to partisan ideologues with clear political agendas?
  • How different was international coverage of the story to the American reporting on it?

In sum


WHAT IS THE LONG-TERM GOAL OF THIS STUDY?

The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations initiated this study to identify lessons for the future.

•  How can future controversies be more responsibly covered?

WHAT WERE THE STUDY’S HIGHLIGHTS?

‘GROUND ZERO MOSQUE’ WAS THE GLOBAL TERM OF CHOICE

Political cartoon by Tom Toles, Washington Post – published Aug. 10, 2010
Political cartoon by Tom Toles, Washington Post – published Aug. 10, 2010

For U.S. media:
While much of the vitriol against Park51 came from talk radio and the blogosphere, most mainstream American media outlets casually called the project the “Ground Zero Mosque” – although occasionally acknowledging that the phrase had problems by prefacing it with “so-called,” or more simply putting the phrase in quotation marks.

By the height of the coverage in mid-August 2010, however, most news outlets that used the term “Ground Zero Mosque” consciously understood it to be a phrase freighted with political meaning.  Park51 was a vulnerability that ideologues used in the U.S. elections in November 2010. It wasn’t Imam Rauf of Park51, or Islam, per se, that was the real focus of attacks from the right, it was “liberal” and Democratic groups – as well as Muslims – who were really being challenged.


For U.K. media:
The press in Britain consistently used the phrase “Ground Zero” to attract their audience’s attention – the “Ground Zero” reference directly linked the Park51 story to 9/11 and implicitly to concerns about terrorism. One of the very few articles from the Times of London on Park51, for example, appeared on the anniversary of September 11, with the headline: “Ground Zero mosque ‘is an act of terror. I can smell death.’”


For Middle Eastern and Pakistani media:
News outlets in countries with Muslim-majority populations avoided the phrase: “Ground Zero mosque,” but they did use the term “Ground Zero” in their coverage of the Park51 story. Why? Countries with Muslim-majority populations reject an association of the “Ground Zero”/September 11 attacks with Islam; the majority of the reporting from Muslim-majority nations emphasized the difference between being Muslim and being a terrorist.


For Southern European media:
The words “Mosque” and “Ground Zero,” were often used together to grab the attention of audiences; the phrase “Park 51” was rarely mentioned.  Many media used sensational headlines and directly linked the story to a “clash of civilizations.” Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, the author of the “clash of civilizations” concept, was frequently quoted.

  • “For U.S. conservatives the Mosque insults 9/11 victims – it’s a clash of civilizations.”  (“Per i conservatori Usa la moschea insulta le vittime dell´11 settembre” – Scontro di civiltà”) La Repubblica, Italy September 10, 2010.

For Latin-American media:
Latin American news outlets dedicated very little space to the Park 51 controversy. Yet when they did, it was hard for them to avoid the buzz-phrase “Ground Zero Mosque” – and hard for them to resist drawing a link between the project and the events of 9/11.


For all outlets:
In an era of keywords and tags, it was hard to avoid the buzz-phrase of choice for media that wanted their stories to pop up in searches and news aggregators.


MEDIA REPEATED THE POLITICIZED LANGUAGE AND COVERED THE PROVOCATIVE ACTIONS OF THE MOST PARTISAN PLAYERS, GIVING THOSE STRIDENT AND BIASED VOICES GREAT PROMINENCE AND AUTHORITY.

Mainstream media contributed to the hysteria surrounding the Park51 project through the extraordinary attention they paid to Florida pastor Terry Jones’ threat to burn 200 Qurans. Many U.S. media repeated the provocative remarks of limelight seekers and hate mongers, such as the man who appeared, on the ABC evening news saying, “This house of evil will be the birthplace of the next terrorist of death.”  TV, especially, gave a platform to those who shouted the loudest, including Pastor Jones, blogger Pamela Geller and talk show host Glen Beck.

The international media emphasized the drama of the story and the competing narratives – the distance between the opposing sides. Sarah Palin and former House speaker Newt Gingrich received significant time and space in the news outlets. On the anniversary of 9/11, for example, Terry Jones was the most quoted source both in Southern European and Latin American news outlets.


U.S. BROADCAST OUTLETS WERE MORE LIKELY THAN OTHER MEDIA TO SPEAK ABOUT ‘RADICAL ISLAM’

Only the American media, especially the broadcast outlets, such as Fox, MSNBC and CNN, used pejorative terms as “Islamist” or “jihadists” in their coverage of Park51. The U.S. media were also much more likely to use the term “radical” to speak about “radical” Islam, “radical” Muslims or a “radical” Imam.


INTERNATIONAL MEDIA COVERED PARK51 AS A STORY ABOUT BIGOTRY AND EXTREMISM IN AMERICA.

By mid-August, Middle Eastern and Pakistani news outlets used Park 51 as a way to discuss religious prejudice in post-9/11 America and used their own platforms to counter and respond to American ignorance of Islam.

The U.K. press covered the Park51 story as an example of reactionary American politics expressing itself in discrimination against Muslims. As a Telegraph headline had it: “Debate over ‘Ground Zero mosque’ shows worst of America.”

Both Southern European and Latin American coverage clustered on two key dates: 8/14 and 9/11: President Obama’s speech in favour of the Center on August 14 and the Sept. 11 anniversary. News outlets emphasized American bigotry and ‘Islamophobia.” El Mundo‘s headline on Sept. 12, for example, said: “La ‘islamofobia’ se propaga por EEUU.” (“Islamophobia spreads throughout U.S.”)  And the headline of O Estado de Sao Paulo, Brazil noted: “Islamofobia contamina aniversário do 11/9.” ( “Islamophobia corrupts the 9/11 anniversary.”)

 


The FULL WEBSITE IS AVAILABLE HERE.  

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