Laura Jacobs, Mark Boukes and Rens Viegenthart

Worries about immigration dominate the public agenda in Western Europe. During the recent refugee crisis, large numbers of people from the Middle East fled their country of origin following war, conflict and political instability in search of a better life in Europe. Today, many Western European countries host rising numbers of immigrants and ethnic minorities. Many of whom have an Islamic background.

Rising levels of ethnic diversity and the inflow of newcomers can be challenging for host societies. Often immigration brings along tensions and feeds intergroup conflict. Large segments of the native population in Western Europe worry about the potential consequences of rising diversity and immigration. Many citizens believe that the inflow of people with an immigration background poses threats to the host society and its inhabitants. The search for scapegoats in times of economic insecurity to blame for negative developments is a well-documented phenomenon. Some native citizens fear that rising immigration puts strains on the functioning of the welfare state and leads to augmented competition at the labour market, resulting in a deteriorating economic situation of their country. Newcomers, such as immigrants, are typically blamed for these (perceived) worsening economic conditions. 

While prior research has confirmed that economic worries offer a central explanation for negative attitudes toward immigrants, the origin of these economic motivations has attracted less scholarly attention so far. It seems that people, generally, have more pessimistic outlooks about the economy than the economic reality suggests. This has been attributed to news coverage about the economy which tends to chiefly report about negative developments, neglecting positive evolutions. This trend has been described as the negativity bias in economic news. Notably, exposure to negative news about the economy largely affects citizens’ perceptions and emotions regarding the economy. The prevalence of negativity in economic news can lead to more worries about the economy and even influence people’s emotional state.

In our study, the goal was to bring in the underexplored role of news consumption while examining the relationship between economic motivations and attitudes toward Muslims. In this way, we help to clarify the origin of economic threat perceptions. We focus on the Dutch context. In the Netherlands, Islam and the integration of Muslims are politicized issues. Political debates about immigrants often focus on groups with an Islamic background, mostly people from Turkish and Moroccan descent who strongly identify with Islam. Between February and June 2015, 2,694 Dutch adults were questioned in a three-wave online survey regarding their media consumption habits, their opinion on the economy, and their attitudes toward Muslims.

The results underline the key role that the consumption of economic news plays. People who regularly consume economic news report more pessimistic outlooks about the economy and indicate to experience more negative emotions (anger and fear). These negative perceptions and emotions regarding the economy prove to be strong drivers of negative attitudes toward Muslims. This suggests that regular consumption of economic news shapes public opinion: It contributes directly to negative perceptions and emotions regarding the economy, and indirectly to anti-Muslim attitudes. It is telling in this regard that not only cognitive factors are important, but also that negative emotions—anger and fear—intensify negative attitudes toward Muslims. This shows that economic worries, activated by economic news, play a key role in the evaluation of Muslims. This is a relevant finding, because prior studies have primarily considered cultural and religious explanations when investigating the origins of anti-Muslims attitudes.

Additionally, our study illustrates that one should disentangle the effects of various types of outlets and genres. Negative effects on perceptions and emotions regarding the economy were stronger for exposure to soft television programs and popular newspapers compared to exposure to hard television news and quality newspapers. This discrepancy can most probably be explained by the divergence in the way both types of news media report about economic issues. Popular newspapers and soft news programs are known to emphasize conflict and negativity, and to focus more on sensational topics. Content differences may thus clarify why exposure to these types of news media has stronger effects on citizens’ economic perceptions and emotions.

In conclusion, exposure to economic news has consequences. Economic news indirectly affects attitudes toward Muslims: Regular exposure to economic news, which has been shown to be primarily negative in nature, renders people more pessimistic about the economy and provokes negative emotions. These negative thoughts and feelings consequently drive anti-Muslim hostility.

More details about the study’s methodology and set-up can be found in the article.

 

Laura Jacobs is a postdoctoral researcher at the Amsterdam School for Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. Her research interests include anti-immigrant attitudes, anti-immigrant parties, media effects and intergroup relations.

Mark Boukes is an assistant professor specialized in Corporate and Political Communication at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. Mark investigates the coverage and effects of economic news. Moreover, his research focuses on media content and effects of infotainment formats (e.g., soft news, political satire, talk shows).

Rens Vliegenthart is Professor for Media and Society at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), University of Amsterdam. His research interests include media–politics interactions, media-effects, and comparative politics.