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Rewrite the Headlines: How did The Sun work out that “1 in 5 Brit Muslims have sympathy for jihadis”?

by on 2016/02/09

Over the first few weeks of February, we’re showcasing the top entries in both the school and undergraduate categories of our Rewrite the Headlines competition (full list of winners here). We’re now onto the special undergraduate subject prizes, with David McElroy at Abertay University winning the Social Policy prize, sponsored by the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde.

How did The Sun work out that “1 in 5 Brit Muslims have sympathy for jihadis”?

On the 23rd November 2015, in the wake of the savage Paris terror attacks which shocked the world, the United Kingdom awoke to the printed and online vision of The Sun’s headline “1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis”. Claiming to represent an exclusive shock poll, the inflammatory headline was accompanied by the threatening image of the nicknamed “Jihadi John” holding a combat knife and wearing his trademark black balaclava. To the right of the newspaper’s front page, a smaller headline warns of a “wake-up call after Paris Blitz” which is proceeded by a bite-size piece of text informing the reader that nearly one in five British Muslims have some sympathy with those who have fled to fight for Islamic State in Syria. On the back of this claim, it is revealed that the number among young Muslims aged 18-34 is even higher at one in four. Pretty shocking claims for a country which is home to 2.7 million Muslims according to the 2011 census.

So where does The Sun get these figures from?

According to The Sun, this shock poll is based on a telephone survey carried out, on behalf of the newspaper, by the East London based polling company Survation; with a representative sample size of 1,003. No other information has been volunteered by The Sun in regards to the details of the research, but thankfully, Survation have published further information on their website. The first thing that Survation wants to make clear, is that the telephone poll in question, was carried out in order to compare changing attitudes to Islamic identify and foreign policy since an earlier poll conducted in March 2015. The telephone questionnaire consisted of seven questions in total, 6 of which were based on a ridged “which of the following statements is closest to your view”? type of answering methodology. There was no option for recording further feelings or opinions despite the profoundly complex and sensitive nature of the subject or the current world-wide context of conflict, mass migration and the increasing insurgence of insidious terrorism.

The particular question, fuelling the flames of the headline, was based on asking the respondents if they agreed with a list of statements:

“I have a lot of sympathy with young Muslims who leave the UK to join fighters in Syria” 5.3% agreed.

“I have some sympathy” 14.5% agreed.

“I have no sympathy” 71.4% agreed.

“I don’t know” 8.8% agreed.

The “1 in 5” claim has been derived from lumping the “lots of” and “some sympathy” together to give a representative score of just under 20%.

There are three striking notions that appear when peeling back this headline and analysing the question that was put to respondents. Firstly, where is the word jihadis? Secondly, who is meant by referring to fighters in Syria; Islamic State or the rebels? And thirdly, what is meant by the subjective concept of sympathy?

Sympathy can be described as feelings of pity and sorrow for someone else’s misfortune; it does not constitute support, backing or sponsorship. However, the context of the headline and its provocative report could easily be accused of giving this misleading impression. Anyone can have sympathy for someone’s position but not agree with it. Never mind the fact that The Sun opted not to report the 716 respondents which have no sympathy, but the 19.7% who did agree were answering a very emotive and complex question based around the subjective emotion of sympathy in relation to fighters which may or may not be connected to the Islamic State.

The Response and Consequence

Thankfully, the United Kingdom enjoys a relatively free press, but at a time when solidarity against the evils of terrorism is most important in the fight against radicalisation, those with editorial and publishing power must act responsibly when claiming to represent opinion-based research. Since the savage attacks in Paris, a number of sources including The Independent and The Guardian, have reported an increase in hate crimes against Muslims and The Sun’s distorted headline could easily find itself being accused of contributing to the incitement of such racial and religious tensions. The polling organisation Survation has since released a statement distancing themselves from, and denouncing, the headlines by stating that “Survation do not support or endorse the way in which this poll’s findings have been interpreted”. An anonymous writer, claiming to be an employee of Survation who worked on the campaign, has published an article on Vice.com stating his or her embarrassment for asking such sensitive questions within a restrictive format and for the poor quality of research due to the selection of ambiguous questions.  The Sun has since come under fire from a range of other media sources, but has refused to acknowledge or apologise for the misleading nature of its headline.

The Bottom Line

While surveys of public opinion are important and useful instruments for gauging the nation’s feelings and influencing government policy, they must also be used with great care. In the example of the research behind The Sun’s “1 in 5 headline”, the term jihadis was never used, the fighters could have referred to either side and the term sympathy is highly open to interpretation. Overall, the research was badly designed, poorly executed and then emphatically twisted in order to manufacture a provocative and controversial headline in the attempt to sell more papers, achieve more “clicks” or feed an anti-Islamic narrative. One may argue that in pursuit of profit maximisation, The Sun has every right to behave like this; however, we must not forget that headlines like these have real-world consequences; some of which lead to racial hatred, religious tensions and even violence.

David McElroy, Abertay University

References:

BBC, 2015. Do 20% of British Muslims really sympathise with jihadists?. [Online] Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-34967994 [Accessed 05 01 2016].

Office for National Statistics, 2016. 2011 UK censuses. [Online] Available at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/guide-method/census/2011/uk-census/index.html [Accessed 05 01 2015].

Survation, 2015. Islamic Identity & Community Relations Survey. [Online] Available at: http://survation.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/11/Islamic-Identity-Community-Relations-Survey.pdf [Accessed 05 01 2016].

Survation, 2015. New Polling of British Muslims. [Online] Available at: http://survation.com/new-polling-of-british-muslims/ [Accessed 05 01 2016].

The Guardian, 2015. Does the Sun’s claim about UK Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis stack up?. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/media/reality-check/2015/nov/23/does-the-suns-claim-about-uk-muslims-sympathy-for-jihadis-stack-up [Accessed 05 01 2016].

The Sun, 2015. 1 in 5 Brit Muslims’ sympathy for jihadis. [Online] Available at: http://www.thesun.co.uk/sol/homepage/news/politics/6758207/1-in-5-British-Muslims-have-sympathy-for-jihadis-in-poll.html [Accessed 05 01 2016].

Vice Media , 2015. I Conducted The Sun’s ‘1 in 5 Muslims’ Poll and Was Shocked By How It Was Used. [Online] Available at: http://www.vice.com/en_uk/read/i-conducted-the-muslim-poll-the-sun-jihadi-sympathy [Accessed 05 01 2016].


The Rewrite the Headlines competition was supported by funding from the British Academy, with additional funding from the University of Strathclyde. The Social Policy prize was  sponsored by the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde.

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Prizes were supported by the British Academy, the University of Strathclyde, the School of Chemistry at the University of St. Andrews, the School of Social Work and Social Policy at the University of Strathclyde, the University of Dundee School of Life Sciences, and the Particle Physics Experiment Research Group at the University of Edinburgh, the Social Research Association, the Scottish History Society, and Palgrave Macmillan.

Competition details can be accessed at https://researchtheheadlines.org/rewritetheheadlines, and the full list of winners is available here.

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