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Published on November 9th, 2015 | by EJC


Only Image I Ever See: Media Consumers’ Perceptions of Iraqis

When you think about Iraqis, what are the first pictures that come to mind? If you are like the participants in a recent Temple University study, you may imagine desert scenes, women in hijabs, crowds of angry men chanting, or brutal terroristic activity. These types of stereotypical mental images are likely linked to pervasive, negative U.S. media depictions of Iraqis and other Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners. Although scholars and cultural critics have long warned of the detrimental effects of such biased media presentations, a new study called “Only Image I Ever See: Media Consumers’ Perceptions of Iraqis”, published in Journalism Studies, is one of the few to investigate whether audience members actually incorporate these stereotypes into their worldviews. The study was conducted by Jennifer Midberry, a doctoral candidate in Temple University’s Media and Communication program.

Concerns about the way that media portrayals of Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners influence public opinion and foreign policy became widespread when the late Edward Said, a professor at Columbia University, published a book on the topic called Orientalism. He argued that stereotypes were created during European colonization of the Middle East, as government reports, art, literature, anthropology, and news stories presented Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners negatively. In these Orientalist depictions, colonized people appeared as pre-modern, helpless, exotic, and uncivilized. Women were sexualized by the emphasis that was placed on the harem and the veil, and men were typically presented as violent. Said claimed that these Orientalist stereotypes made justifications of colonial projects possible.

In both Orientalism and his follow-up book, Covering Islam, Said illustrated how these specific stereotypes have continued in contemporary media discourse and influenced attitudes in the United States. Other communication scholars have confirmed that U.S. media is replete with stereotypes about Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners. In numerous studies, these researchers have found that U.S. news coverage, movies, television shows, and video games rely on Orientalist tropes. The collective warning from this body of work has been that these stereotypes have the potential to adversely affect audience members’ views about Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners.

The research in Journalism Studies demonstrates that these concerns have been well founded. Focus groups conducted with 42 undergraduates from Temple University revealed that Orientalist ideas perpetuated in U.S. media had become a salient part of the participants’ mental images. The participants were asked to talk about their impressions of Iraqis in order to assess whether they held stereotypical attitudes. In the discussions, most of the participants linked Iraqis to the U.S. war in Iraq and linked them to terrorism. Beyond that, they associated Iraqis with desert landscapes, poverty, and exotic scenes. They felt that Iraqi women were oppressed by Islam and by the hijab. Many of the participants confessed they did not know much about Iraqis, and that it was difficult to differentiate Iraqis from other Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners. For example, one participant explained, “I feel like a lot of the time we just group them, all the Middle Eastern countries, together. And I’m not an expert, I can’t necessarily distinguish different aspects of each culture.”

The tendency to see all Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners as interchangeable is part of an Orientalist mindset, and it has serious repercussions. It explains another one of the study’s findings, that participants had inaccurate beliefs about the Iraq war and 9/11, and conflated the U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As one participant reflected, “It’s kind of confusing, actually, because we’re involved with Afghanistan and Iran and Iraq. And, it’s like you’re not sure how 9/11 connects with Iraq or which one connects with which.” When U.S. citizens hold mistaken ideas about historical events, and are unable to distinguish between specific political developments and wars, it paves the way for them to see all regional conflict as opposition to the United States itself. Ultimately, that means that all Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners can easily be viewed as the enemy and that all countries in the region can be thought of, as one participant said, “the same bad place where the bad guys come from.”

Although the participants had incorporated Orientalist perspectives into their understanding of Iraqis and the U.S. wars, they acknowledged that these views were flawed. As the focus group discussions progressed, participants vocalized that the mental images they had were largely influenced by media portrayals that they did not completely trust. Many participants criticized U.S. news coverage for only showing Iraqis in terms of conflict and for failing to tell U.S. audiences anything about daily life in Iraq. Where were the stories about Iraqis their own age? Why didn’t they see Iraqis engaged in activities they could relate to? Why were men always shown as angry and women always presented as silent and veiled? These were some of the questions participants posed. They were suspicious that news coverage like that was left out to bolster support for the U.S. government’s military activity in the region.

The most troubling finding of the study, however, is that despite their ability to think critically about the Orientalist depictions in the U.S. media, participants reported that the stereotypes were usually the first and most salient images that came to mind. One participant lamented, “I feel like there’s nothing I could ever do to get the stereotyped visualization out of my head because even though I can think rationally and be ethical about it, and not think of them as blood thirsty terrorists, in terms of the image that comes to my mind it’s always gonna be the stereotypical image, just cause that’s the only image I ever see.”

The results of this study have important implications for journalists reporting on issues involving Iraqis and other Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners. Current coverage of the Middle East and neighboring regions will inevitably include conflict, decimated landscapes, women in hijabs, and upset protestors. However, as the study concluded, “when those images are recycled continuously in U.S. media, without the inclusion of photos that depict the full range of activities, emotions, relationships, roles, ages, and interests of Iraqis or other Muslims, Arabs, or Middle Easterners, they contribute to dangerous Orientalist stereotypes.” Journalists who want to offer audiences a more accurate picture of events in the Middle East must strive to broaden their stories to include feature stories about daily life and profiles of local efforts for peace and reconciliation. In order to stop perpetuating dangerous Orientalist stereotypes, U.S. media must depict Muslims, Arabs, and Middle Easterners with greater nuance.

The full version of the study can be read in Journalism Studies, and accessed at Taylor & Francis online.

About the Author:

Jennifer Midberry is a doctoral candidate in Temple University’s Media and Communication program. Her research focuses on visual representations of the Middle East, production of photojournalism, and emotional responses to images of conflict. She previously worked as a photographer for the Philadelphia Daily News and Associated Press, and as a photo editor for AOL News and ABC News Digital Media. 

Photo: Zoriah

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