Study: news fuels rumors about Obama being Muslim

Mike Mullen

In a conversation during the 2008 presidential campaign, one of Brian WeeksâÄô friends said that President Barack Obama was a Muslim. WeeksâÄô friend said that heâÄôd learned about it on television.

“Everyone else in the group kind of jumped on this person, saying they were crazy,” Weeks said. “It certainly got me thinking about the role of the media.”

Weeks, who was then a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, said the proliferation of rumors about ObamaâÄôs religion led him to study media coverage about the issue. Weeks and his adviser, professor Brian Southwell, published a paper in the September issue of the journal Mass Communication and Society.

According to their findings, which looked at major daily newspapers and television news outlets, 373 newspaper stories and 253 television programs mentioned the rumors between June 1, 2008 and Election Day.

Southwell and Weeks said that neither was familiar with any mainstream coverage which stated that Obama was in fact Muslim and that nearly all stories were aimed at dispelling the rumor.

“In no instance did we find any substantive coverage of evidence for it âÄî because the evidence doesnâÄôt exist,” Southwell said.

Still, the belief persists. At the time of the election, Pew Research Center polling found that about 12 percent of Americans believed Obama was Muslim. A Pew survey released in August showed that the number had risen to 18 percent, with a further 43 percent responding, “DonâÄôt know.” Only 34 percent of respondents correctly identified Obama as a Christian.

Southwell and WeeksâÄô paper found that on the day that a newspaper or television story mentioned the speculation about Obama, Google searches about the rumor showed a corresponding spike. Southwell said their findings contradict an oft-stated belief that mainstream media is growing irrelevant in the age of the Internet.

“On some level I think this study partly serves to make sure that we donâÄôt take media off the hook altogether,” Southwell said. “ThereâÄôs still quite a bit of culpability here for news outlets.”

Weeks said that an active and curious public would, ideally, become more informed about important stories. But, with polls showing that the level of Americans who believed Obama to be Muslim remaining steady at 12 percent throughout the presidential campaign, Weeks said this might not be the case.

“Best case scenario, people see the story on television or in a newspaper, they go online and they find factual, accurate information,” said Weeks, who completed his masterâÄôs in June and is now a doctoral student at Ohio State University. “But thatâÄôs not always guaranteed. I think to some extent people will kind of look for information that reinforces their currently held beliefs.”

“Belief can even trump reality”

Southwell and WeeksâÄô paper points to a single political blogger, Andy Martin, as having first spread the rumor about ObamaâÄôs connection to Islam.

Reached by phone, Martin said he still believes that Obama is a Muslim.

“More than ever,” Martin said. “HereâÄôs a guy thatâÄôs been in Washington a year and a half, claims heâÄôs a Christian and doesnâÄôt go to church.”

Martin acknowledged that church attendance was not required for oneâÄôs Christianity. But Martin, who also doubts the authenticity of the Hawaiian birth certificate provided by the Obama campaign, said that his position has not changed. Martin speculated that Obama might reveal his adherence to Islam after he leaves office.

During the 2008 campaign, Martin appeared on Fox NewsâÄô HannityâÄôs America. In their study, Southwell and Weeks found that 89 percent of the television news coverage of the rumor came from cable news stations like Fox News, CNN and MSNBC.

“Some of the TV coverage âÄî if youâÄôre talking about a 30-second story âÄî itâÄôs just going to raise it and not necessarily go into depth refuting it,” Southwell said.

Both Southwell and Weeks said that newspapers were more comprehensive in disproving the speculation.

Pioneer Press editor Thom Fladung sighed when asked about coverage of the rumors.

“ItâÄôs tiresome,” Fladung said.

Neither Fladung nor Star Tribune editor Nancy Barnes recalls assigning or approving any staff reports on the rumors.

Fladung said one factor which he considers when deciding on whether to cover a rumor is “how much buzz” it had generated, pointing to the Pew findings as proof of public interest. But he said there were other standards to decide what the Pioneer Press covers.

“Is this a story youâÄôre going to really put some reporting horsepower behind and really try to give it some substance as to why people believe this?” Flagund asked rhetorically. “And why it matters to them, in a country where ostensibly we have the freedom to practice whatever religion we choose.”

Barnes said that the Star Tribune occasionally follows stories which originated from blogs or the Internet, pointing to the recent exposure of wrongdoing at the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now. After allegations surfaced on conservative blogger Andrew BreitbartâÄôs website, the Star Tribune followed up, Barnes said, and wrote staff stories about the local impact of the investigation.

More often than not, Barnes said, the Star Tribune does not chase stories based on unverified Internet reports.

“We donâÄôt consider it our responsibility to quash every rumor thatâÄôs flying around on the Internet,” Barnes said. “When it becomes part of a news story, then thatâÄôs when we would address the rumor. But most of the times we would just ignore it.”

Barnes said that a rumor also becomes worthy of coverage when the subject of the rumor addresses it publicly.

On Tuesday, Obama did just that, answering a citizenâÄôs question about his Christianity during a backyard event in Albuquerque, N.M. In his response, Obama described himself as “a Christian by choice.”

“My mother was one of the most spiritual people I knew, but she didnâÄôt raise me in the church,” Obama said. “So I came to my Christian faith later in life, and it was because the precepts of Jesus Christ spoke to me in terms of the kind of life that I would want to lead.”

For his part, Martin claims to have an “open mind” on the topic and said he doesnâÄôt hate Obama. But Martin also said he would soon take another trip to Honolulu to investigate ObamaâÄôs birth certificate. MartinâÄôs current theory is that Barack Obama Sr. is not the presidentâÄôs real father. Martin now thinks that the president is not actually a Muslim, but that Obama might believe it to be true.

“See,” Martin said, “belief can even trump reality under certain circumstances.”