A recent study found that news coverage highlighting both the presence of religious symbols and a socially deprived inner-city location in reports of antisemitic hate crimes led people with lower education levels to perceive the Jewish victim’s behavior as provocative. This perception, in turn, increased the tendency to blame the victim for the crime. The study was published in the scientific journal Communications.
Antisemitism, the prejudice against or hostility toward Jewish people, has been growing not only in Europe but also in various parts of the world. Recent incidents in Germany, including an attack on a Jewish person wearing a kippah in Berlin in 2018, have sparked concerns about antisemitic attitudes and hate crimes. These events prompted researchers to investigate the role of news coverage in shaping public perceptions of such crimes.
To examine the impact of news coverage on public perceptions, the researchers conducted an experiment in Germany with the participation of 392 individuals, ranging in age from 18 to 69 years, with an average age of 45.4 years. Roughly half of the participants were female. The study employed a quota-based sample, ensuring that participants represented various demographics in proportion to their prevalence in the population.
Each participant was randomly assigned to one of four groups. In these groups, they were exposed to news articles that described a hate crime against a Jewish person in Berlin. Importantly, these articles were based on real news reports about antisemitic attacks in Germany. The researchers used the appearance and logo of a reputable German news outlet, “Der Spiegel,” to lend credibility to the articles. The articles were identical except for variations related to religious symbols and the location of the attack.
In some articles, it was mentioned that the victim wore religious symbols, like a kippah (a Jewish head covering) and a Star of David necklace. In others, the victim was described as not wearing any religious symbols. The location of the attack was also varied; it either took place in front of a Berlin synagogue or in a deprived inner-city area of Berlin known as Neukölln.
The researchers tested whether these different scenarios would influence participants’ perceptions of the victim’s behavior (e.g. “The provocative behavior of the victim led to the incident”) and the degree to which they blamed the victim (e.g. “Through his behavior, the victim bears a share of responsibility in the case”).
Contrary to expectations, the presence of religious symbols alone did not significantly affect participants’ perceptions of provocative behavior. In other words, just wearing religious symbols did not make participants perceive the victim’s behavior as provocative.
Similarly, news articles emphasizing that the attack occurred in a socially deprived inner-city area, without mentioning religious symbols, also had no significant effect on how participants perceived the victim’s behavior. The location alone did not lead to perceptions of provocation.
However, when news articles highlighted both the presence of religious symbols and that the attack occurred in a socially deprived inner-city area, participants perceived the victim’s behavior as significantly more provocative. This combination of cues increased perceptions of provocativeness.
As expected, the perception of provocative behavior positively and significantly predicted victim blaming. In simpler terms, when participants saw the victim’s behavior as provocative, they were more likely to blame the victim for the hate crime.
An interesting aspect of the study was the role of education levels. The effects of the combined cues (religious symbols and location) on perceived provocative behavior and subsequent victim blaming were primarily observed in individuals with lower levels of education. Those with higher education did not exhibit the same effects.
While this study provides valuable insights into how news coverage can shape our perceptions in hate crimes, it’s essential to acknowledge its limitations. The study was conducted in Germany and focused on antisemitic hate crimes, so its findings may not fully generalize to other cultural contexts or different types of attacks and victims.
“The present study applies the victim blaming framework to antisemitic hate crimes,” the researchers concluded. “The results reveal that news coverage about a Jewish hate crime victim’s behavior is perceived as more provocative and, in turn, increases victim blaming, when an article highlights that a victim displayed religious symbols in a deprived inner-city area. Yet, effects were only detectable in individuals with rather low levels of education (and not for individuals with high levels of education), suggesting that these individuals support the idea of so-called ‘no go areas for Jews’ at least to a certain extent and when a Jewish citizen chooses to publicly display religious symbols.”
The study, “No-go zone for Jews? Examining how news on anti-Semitic attacks increases victim blaming“, was authored by Christian von Sikorski and Pascal Merz.