Study Highlights

How did the world’s news media cover the “Ground Zero Mosque” controversy?

Today, media provide up-to-date news essentially while events are occurring.  But although many people watch, listen or read breaking news, very few have the knowledge or take the time to assess how events are framed.  That means that sensationalized coverage of breaking events can have a disproportionate impact on how audiences understand key stories in the news.

Upon the recommendation of The United Nations Alliance of Civilizations, the International Center on Media & Public Affairs (ICMPA) at the University of Maryland, College Park, U.S.A. and the Gabinete de Comunicación y Educación at the Universitat Autonoma de Barcelona, Spain, undertook a study to analyze how major news outlets across the globe covered the Park51 news story over a six-month period, from May-October 2010.

ICMPA and the Gabinete de Comunicación y Educación asked a series of questions:

  • What were the implications of media calling the Park51 project the ‘Ground Zero Mosque’?

  • Did the language of coverage change over the summer and fall?

  • Did media around the world all use the same terms and come to the same understanding of what was happening in New York?

  • Which media gave a platform to partisan ideologues with clear political agendas, such as Pastor Terry Jones, blogger Pamela Geller and talk show host Glen Beck?

  • What media “framed” the Park51 story to be about “radical Islam’?

In sum this study wanted to know what lessons could be learned from the coverage of the Park51 story.  How can future controversies be more responsibly covered?

WHAT WERE THE STUDY’S HIGHLIGHTS?

‘GROUND ZERO MOSQUE’ IS THE TERM OF CHOICE

  • 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.

Tom Toles, Washington Post – published Aug. 10, 2010

By the height of the coverage in mid-August, most news outlets that used the term “Ground Zero Mosque” consciously understood it to be a phrase freighted with political meaning. As a result they began to write that the “mosque” was only “near to” or was “two blocks away from” Ground Zero, but such parsing of differences likely still left audiences with the impression that the main component of Park51 was a mosque, and that the construction site was as close to the site of the World Trade Center as made no difference.

  • 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,” are used together to grab the attention of audiences.  “Park 51” is hardly ever mentioned.
    Many media use sensational headlines and directly link the story to a “clash of civilizations”:  “Per i conservatori Usa la moschea insulta le vittime dell´11 settembre” – Scontro di civiltà” (For US Conservatives the Mosque insults 9/11 victims. Clash of civilizations), La Repubblica, Italy 10/09/2010.  Harvard professor Samuel Huntington, the author of the “clash of civilizations” concept, is openly quoted.

  • For Latin-American media:  Latin American news outlets dedicated very little space to the Park 51 controversy.  Yet 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.

BLOGS & TALK RADIO – BUT ALSO U.S. TV – FUELED THE RAGE

  • Major mainstream media outlets were not the chief culprits in the rise in intolerance towards Muslims and Islam, domestically or internationally. The seemingly uncontrollable rage, as expressed in the Park51 story, was stoked by partisan ideologues with clear political agendas. But TV, especially, did give a platform to those who shouted the loudest, including Pastor Terry Jones, blogger Pamela Geller and talk show host Glen Beck.

  • In the U.S. media, religion became a Trojan House for politics. In advance of the November midterm 2010 elections, 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 – and yes, Muslims – who supported Park51 who were really being challenged. Park51 was a vulnerability that ideologues could use in the U.S. elections in November of 2010.

MEDIA WERE TOO WILLING TO REPEAT THE AGGRESSIVE WORDS AND ACTIONS OF BIT PLAYERS, GIVING THEM GREATER 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 US media repeated the provocative remarks of limelight seekers and hatemongers, 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”?

  • The 24/7 news cycle tempted the US media to get the most recent bit of news out so fast that background on the various sides “spinning” the story was lost in the breathless accounting of the latest rhetorical assault.

  • 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 US 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 THE STORY THROUGH THE US MEDIA’S LENS

  • The majority of the stories in the media outlets in South Europe and Latin America reflected the US media coverage of the story.  The coverage was a kind of meta-interpretation of the news: the focus was less on the story itself, than on how the US media reported on it.  “La polemica Dal «New York Times» al «Wall Street Journal» gli interrogativi sul ruolo dell’informazione.” ( “Controversy from NY Times to Wall Street Journal, questions about media’s role.”), Il Corriere della Sera, Italy.  September, 11, 2010.

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 US”).  And the headline of O Estado de Sao Paulo, Brazil noted: “Islamofobia contamina aniversário do 11/9” ( “Islamophobia corrupts the 9/11 anniversary”).


The world religions map, cropped in the header, is by Iannisss [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (www.creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.