Dr Stella Bullo, lecturer in the Department of Languages, told me that her department is “very much focused on incorporating the research of its academic staff into the respective teaching that it provides, and with this in mind, Professor McEnery’s research is very much relevant to what is currently being taught in the Department.”
Details of the seminar theme and the high profile speaker generated a lot of interest, and attracted a large audience of academic staff and students, as well as members of the public.
Professor McEnery began by explaining the analysis he and his team carried out on the language used by the UK press. Taking a broad approach as linguists, their research involved downloading approximately 200,000 articles where the words ‘Muslim’ and ‘Islam’ were mentioned in the national press – broadsheets and tabloids, from 1989 to 2009.
The research found that ‘Terrorism’ was more frequently used than ‘Islam’. This was of particular interest to the study especially as the research was focussed on a religion – namely, Islam, and not terrorism.
In addition, the Professor viewed the research findings to indicate an attempt by the UK press to link Islam and being Muslim to the issue of terrorism.
The audience listened intently as Professor McEnery explained that in his view, Muslims are generally reported in terms of conflict in the majority of reports issued by UK press. He went on to say that the word ‘extremism’ was also of interest to his research analysis as he found that press reports appeared to link it closely with Muslims and Islam.
While explaining the power of word-association, the Professor stated that ‘Islam’ is often associated with negativity and it is generally implied by the Press that it is somewhat abnormal to be a devout Muslim. He also expressed an interest in the term ‘Muslim World’, which, according to him, demonstrates an attempt to alienate Muslims by implying that they belong to a remote, disconnected and unseen society. He described it as a problematic expression and informed the audience that much of the negativity surrounding Islam can be traced to as far back as the 17th Century.
With particular reference to the murder of Lee Rigby in Woolwich last year, Professor McEnery and his team looked at 632 articles which reported on the Woolwich incident in all UK publications within the first month of the killing. Press reports of comments made by one of the Woolwich killers were also analysed. Although the vast majority of reports correctly quoted what was said, the Professor was of the view that the other inaccurate reports had been deliberately edited to suit the agenda of the Press, particularly in terms of further alienating Muslims and Islam from ‘normal’ mainstream society.
Professor McEnery concluded his talk by stating that in light of his research findings, the manner in which the Woolwich incident was reported by the UK Press was predictable. He also concluded, however, that in spite of this it was evident that the press also tried to limit damage to community relations by reporting condemnation of the killing from Muslim groups and individuals.
In general, the audience reaction to the talk was positive. This was reflected in responses from some students who were in attendance.
Mohammed, an MA Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) student, commented, “I found the talk to be of great interest especially in terms of providing ideas for my dissertation, as well as from the point of view of being a UK citizen and a Muslim.”
I interviewed Professor McEnery after the seminar and asked him about the feasibility of conducting similar research along the lines of identity and ethnicity in place of religion, “Absolutely! And a lot of research at Lancaster looks at different identities, ethnicities and representation around that or around specific events.”
I also asked whether he felt that the horror of the Woolwich murder had been aggravated by the manner in which it was reported in the Press. He did not feel that the Press was to blame and said that the actual aggravating factor was the fact that the murderers used social media to broadcast their ideology in a particularly graphic way.
On the question of how the research findings could be of use to non-linguists, Professor McEnery explained that he and his team have produced short pamphlets to explain the research to non-linguists, which he hoped would be of use on a more general level.
The Professor concluded by saying “I think it is incumbent on us to make sure that the research we produce can be consumed by communities that might benefit from it.”