About the Media & Terrorist Attacks: Do Incidents Get More Coverage if the Attacker is Muslim?

In February of this year, President Donald Trump famously aired his view that the media neglected to report on some terrorist attacks, going as far as saying that the situation had gotten to a point where, “it’s (terrorism) not even being reported”. Trump famously went on to cite a non-existent terrorist attack that supposedly happened in Sweden later that month (“Sweden, who would believe this? Sweden”), while a member of his team, Kelly Anne Conway, cited the acts of two non-existent Iraqi refugees in a non-existent terrorist attack (“The Bowling Green Massacre”). A study published last month on the reporting and coverage of terrorist attacks has proven Trump correct; the media does seem to neglect reporting on some terrorist attacks. The study also presents findings that unequivocally show there is significant disproportion in media coverage of certain attacks over others. The authors of the paper, Erin Kearns, Allison Betus, and Anthony Lemieux, set out to shed some light on the factors that influence how much coverage the media devotes to a terrorist attack; the findings should be noted by anyone interested in the media, it’s biases, and the future of Islamophobia.

The authors of the paper paid heed to previously established psychological theories, such as Tajfel and Turner’s Social Identity Perspective, which places great importance on group membership (in-group), and definition of identity by what we are not (out-group). According to this theory, when an in-group is doing well, it increases the likelihood that the individuals who make up that in-group are also doing well. Conversely, when a group is doing badly, individuals from that group will be doing badly too, and might be investing resources in trying to better their group’s standing.

The researchers from Georgia State put forward the idea that the individuals working within the media, who are “predominantly white, Christian(s)” from the United States, might consciously or subconsciously, work towards protecting their in-group status by not focusing on “white crimes”. However, whenever a crime is committed by an individual belonging to another group, they might focus on this more, particularly if the individual belongs to a certain “hot” minority (think Muslims, African-Americans, immigrants etc.). The authors do well to cite Jack Shaheen, whose work on Islamophobia in the media has been pioneering; he has found that fictional portrayals of Arabs in the media are on the whole extremely negative, degrading and debasing.

The study examined 4 factors; the perpetrator’s identity (whether or not the perpetrator was a Muslim), whether or not the perpetrator has been caught or arrested, the nature of the target, and finally, how many people were killed in the incident. The researchers investigated all terrorist attacks that had occurred in the U.S. between 2011 and 2015, finding there had been 110 such attacks within this period. They then used 2 news article databases (LexisNexis Academic and CNN.com) to find all the articles that reported on these attacks, from the date of the attack through to the end of 2016. LexisNexis Academic includes publications such as The New York Times and The Washington Post within its database, as well as local newspapers. After excluding some articles for various methodological reasons, they ended up reviewing 2,413 news articles.

As predicted, they found that in the instances when the attacker was a Muslim, the story received a whopping 449% more coverage than other attacks. Taking the example of the Boston Marathon terrorist attack, it accounted for nearly 20% of all news coverage during its time period, whereas events such as Wade Michael Page’s fatal attack on a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin received only 3.81% of coverage, while Dylann Roof’s terror attack on an African-American church in Charleston received 7.42% of coverage. Frazier Glenn Miller’s anti-Semitic attack on a synagogue in Kansas received a tiny 3.27% of coverage at the time.

It is now well established that the way in which the media reports on a topic can have profound influence on the views of the public. A wide range of cognitive biases can be evoked from the way in which something is framed. The availability cascade describes the process by which we begin believing in an idea simply because we are constantly exposed to it. If “Muslim” acts of terror are 449% more attention in the media, people will certainly begin believing Muslims are terrorists, particularly when other acts of terror are being underreported. It does not take a genius to link the coverage of terror attacks with the random outbursts of Islamophobic violence that we are seeing throughout much of the world, from the attacks on worshippers outside mosques to the acid attacks that are plaguing London. Terror attacks do happen, that is a fact. A microscopic number of Muslims are radicalised, that is also a fact. Both of these need to be addressed. The media needs to play a responsible role in this situation by adhering to what should be one of its most basic tenets; to cover the news in a fair, balanced and proportioned way. This study scientifically confirms what many of us had been thinking for years – the media is failing to do this and adding fuel to an already explosive situation.

Written by Tamim Mobayed

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Tamim is a 28 year old Dublin born Syrian who grew up in Belfast. He is working in the Media and studying for a Ph.D. in Psychology, part-time. He's a big fan of Liverpool Football Club and cats.