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Media Coverage Can Change Minds

Why framing Trump's "Muslim Ban" as un-American turned people against it.

New research suggests that coverage of public protests to Trump’s “Muslim Ban” contributed to shifting attitudes against it. This study has interesting implications for our understanding of the role of mass movements in shifting public opinion, and it contributes to a more complete picture of how Trump’s presidency has shifted Americans’ attitudes and behavior.

Nick Rose/Flickr
Source: Nick Rose/Flickr

Researchers recruited subjects using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, surveying 423 respondents just prior to the announcement of executive order 13769, banning entry into the US for 90 days for people from seven predominantly Muslim countries. Shortly after the announcement of the ban, 311 of the same subjects completed the survey a second time. They found that while only 44 percent of respondents opposed the ban prior to its announcement, 51.4 percent opposed it afterwards. Public opinion, in general, shifted against Trump’s executive order after it was announced and protests against it were extensively reported on. Moreover, the authors find support for the claim that at least some respondents shifted their support away from the ban because coverage of it and the ensuing protests portrayed it as un-American and, thus, incompatible with their American identity.

The authors define American identity as "a subjective or internalized sense of belonging to the nation” and differentiate this construct from similar concepts. As opposed to ethnocentrism, American identity can be unifying; unlike patriotism, it is free of “political ideology”; and it does not involve the chauvinistic belief in international superiority. However, American identity typically goes hand in hand with a preference for restrictive policies that target racial, ethnic, or cultural minorities. Thus, the findings of the present study appear surprising.

The authors of the study explained the reported effect in terms of “priming” relatively stable, underlying predispositions by framing the Trump administration’s policy as “un-American.” They note that this framing was widespread in the ubiquitous media coverage of the executive order and public protests of it—for example, protesters were depicted draped in American flags and commentators often noted the ban’s inconsistency with religious liberty, a core American value. Portrayed in this way, the policy was readily seen as opposed to one’s American identity. Thus, those for whom this identity is deep-seated would be primed to shift their support away from the policy.

The authors highlight the relevance of this study for future research into the role of media framing and coverage of current events in shaping public opinion. One virtue of their study is that it looks at the same group of subjects both before and after the relevant event and its coverage. Hence, it can address questions of effects on individual attitudes. They also raise questions about the role of the news cycle, in which certain events receive sustained, blanket coverage for a short period of time before dropping off the radar entirely or coming back into view at a later time. They call for future work examining which attitudinal shifts are long-term and what contributes to their stability.

This study also bears on another set of issues, which I have written about here before. There is evidence of an increase in anti-immigrant and other discriminatory behaviors since Trump’s electoral victory. One interpretation of what’s been happening is that Trump’s rhetoric and policies have signaled acceptance of xenophobia and other discriminatory attitudes. Thus, those who harbor these attitudes have come to expect less social stigma from acting on them and are less inclined to inhibit their desires to behave in these ways. The present study suggests a way of pushing back. People whose identity as Americans is central to their self-conceptions may be prompted to oppose xenophobic and otherwise discriminatory policies and behaviors if they come to see them as antithetical to what it means to be American. Normalization of anti-Muslim discrimination, through presidential rhetoric and policy, may disinhibit acting on desires to lash out against Muslims, but framing religious discrimination as un-American in popular media and conversation may counter this. Popular discourse may, thus, shore up the norms many of us have fretted about the Trump presidency eroding.