Undergraduate research assistants Samantha Goldman, Kristhy Bartels, Allyson Lowitz, and fourth year graduate student Nicole Betz presented their poster on dehumanizing language in the media at RISE on April 5th.  

The project was an offshoot of previous research done in the CORE lab on the language used in the media after mass shootings, and compared the language used to discuss Muslim and Non-Muslim perpetrators.  The original project focused on the degree to which the media’s language assigned characteristics of victimhood or villainy, and whether or not they seemed to assign blame to external or internal forces for the perpetrator.  

The extension of this project presented by researchers above took the base idea of the original project (that the media may use inherently different language when talking about Muslim vs Non-Muslim perpetrators) and applied it to a new framework.  The framework for this new study was Nick Haslam’s 2006 model of dehumanization, which separates dehumanizing language into two distinct categories. One, animalistic dehumanization, compares the subject to a wild animal, characterizing them as out of control, full of rage, savage, etc. The other, mechanistic dehumanization, compares the subject to automata, and describes them as cold, unfeeling, calculating, and disengaged. While both types of language deny human-like characteristics to the subject, they exist on different “social planes”. Mechanistic dehumanization exists on what Haslam describes as a parallel plane; separate from humanity but on the same level. Animalistic dehumanization however, implies a sort of social subjugation, and relegates the subject to a social plane lower than that of humanity.  

The researchers hypothesized that 1) the media (with samples pulled from mainstream print and TV news sources) would use dehumanizing language for both Muslim and Non-Muslim perpetrators of mass shootings, and 2) the media would use more animalistic dehumanization when discussing Muslims, and more mechanistic dehumanization when discussing Non-Muslims. The results of the study supported both hypotheses, with the media samples showing more Mechanistic language used in the aftermath of shootings perpetrated by Non-Muslims, and more animalistic language used in the aftermath of shootings perpetrated by Muslims.

This research is crucial because it points to a significant difference in the way that mainstream news sources talk about perpetrators of different religious backgrounds. If the media uses language that implies more social subjugation when discussing Muslim perpetrators of mass shootings, then a troubling paradigm arises – one which must be addressed and researches further.

To check out the poster, click here.