Using plagiarism detection software to examine anti-Muslim bias in post-9/11 news coverage

A new sociological study suggests mainstream media sources tended to rely on the rhetoric of certain anti-Muslim groups after 9/11:

“The vast majority of organisations competing to shape public discourse about Islam after the September 11 attacks delivered pro-Muslim messages, yet my study shows that journalists were so captivated by a small group of fringe organisations that they came to be perceived as mainstream,” the paper’s author, University of North Carolina assistant professor of sociology Christopher Bail, told Wired.co.uk…

Bail and his team used plagiarism detection software to compare 1,084 press releases produced by 120 different organisations with more than 50,000 television transcripts and newspaper articles produced between 2001 and 2008. The software picked up damning similarities between the releases and stories from news outlets including the New York Times, USA Today, the Washington Times, CBS News, CNN and Fox News Channel.

“We learned the American media almost completely ignored public condemnations of terrorist events by prominent Muslim organisations in the United States,” Bail told Wired.co.uk. “Inattention to these condemnations, combined with the emotional warnings of anti-fringe organisations, has created a very distorted representation of the community of advocacy organisations, think tanks, and religious groups competing to shape the representation of Islam in the American public sphere.”…

Bail’s paper, published in the American Sociological Review, is part of a wider study which will investigate how the influence of these fringe groups has spread beyond media and in to the real world, where doors have been opened to elite conservative social circles and conservative think tanks — the first steps to influencing public policy and national opinion. Bail touched upon this in the current study after analysing publicly available information on the organisations’ membership, which revealed troubling crossovers between fringe and mainstream organisations.

Four quick thoughts:

1. It sounds like there could be some importance influence of social networks. These fringe groups may be on the edges of public discourse but they have connections or means to which to reach more mainstream media sources. How much of this reporting is built on previous personal connections?

2. This sounds like a clever use of plagiarism software. Such software is intended to catch students in using published material incorrectly but it can also be used to track common quotes, phrases, and narratives.

3. In general, how much does the media today rely on press releases and reports from mainstream or fringe groups without interviews, fact-checking, and sorting through all the information?

4. Would a similar study involving elite liberal social circles and think tanks find similar things?

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