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Is Media Coverage Of ISIS Hurting Indiana Muslims?

Michael Foley

If you think all the news stories about the so-called Islamic State haven’t pervaded the culture in Indiana, both researchers and Muslim leaders say: think again.

Do a quick search on the NPR website for the term ISIS and you get just more than 1,100 results.  Check for the White House’s preferred term ISIL and it’s a scant 200. But search instead for that group’s go-to name, The Islamic State, and the number balloons to more than 8,000 hits – the majority of them in the last 12 months.

In short, it’s a media landscape pulverized by the horrors of that terrorist group, however ones names it. And when news is that pervasive, says Purdue communication professor Glenn Sparks, it affects consumers.

“If people are hit with a steady stream of the words ‘Islam” and ‘terrorist’ in the same sentence, that becomes the information that’s most available to them when they’re making a judgment,” Sparks says.

It’s called “cultivation theory” and it was first described in the early days of television by a scholar named George Gerbner. The theory goes that the more someone is exposed to an idea in the media, the more they identify with it. That’s bad news for Muslims, even in Indiana.

“Oh, we get quite a bit of negative feedback,” says Edgar Hopida, communications director for the Islamic Society of North America, which is headquartered in Hendricks County. He says the group has received hate mail and derogatory messages on its voice mail, especially since ISIS has been in the news.

“They write out expletives, ‘go back to where you came from’, ‘you are not American,’ ‘you do not belong in this country,’ ‘take your Sharia law and go somewhere else.’”

Hopida says despite countless discussions since the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, there are still many people American Muslims haven’t been able to convince that such attacks are carried out only by radical, fringe groups claiming to act in the name of Islam, but actually doing so through a perversion of the faith.

“Because it’s clear, just from their actions and just from the horrific actions that they did recently, by burning another Muslim – a Jordanian pilot – that they actions are very un-Islamic,” Hopida says.

But Purdue’s Glenn Sparks says both communications studies and psychological research say the way the mind processes information make the battle Hopida is trying to fight very difficult.

“The notion here that somehow changing people’s attitudes is easy is not empirically confirmed in the literature. I think of an article that was written years ago by a sociologist, [Amitai] Etzioni. The title of it was called “Human Beings Are Not Very Easy To Change After All.” So when we talk about changing people’s attitudes and opinions, it’s not such an easy deal,” Sparks says.

And when each news cycle brings additional horrors wrought by ISIS, it becomes even harder.

Hopida says while local media don’t seem to carry the same anti-Muslim weight as national media, he feels the damage done to his faith may outweigh the value of the information that’s presented by media outlets…

“There is a big disconnect and they’ve played a role in painting a very caricatured, over-generalized picture of what a Muslim is,” he says.

Glenn Sparks agrees it’s a problem and he thinks the best solution might be for media consumers to find information without consulting an electronic device.

“I don’t think we can rely on the media, particularly the news media, to solve this problem single-handedly. It’s more complicated than that. And I think that people’s personal experiences with others is a major theme that I would emphasize,” Sparks says.

And Hopida says in the midst of all the nasty phone calls and e-mails, there is hope for what Sparks suggests.

“As a matter of fact, there’s a local person here, he lives in Indianapolis, we had a very long discussion. And he said ‘What’s going on? What does the Islamic State represent? Because all I see is death and destruction in the media.’ It’s not like he had his mind made up, but he’s kind of confused on what’s going on and what he wanted to do is learn more about Islam as opposed to having his mind made up just by watching the sound bytes on television.”

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