After major extremist attacks, public discussion often becomes dominated by the question of whether white attackers are talked about differently and treated differently than non-white attackers. We inevitably see the famous “terrorism or mental illness” chart from a Family Guy episode, frequent references to media hypocrisy, and exhortations from activists to “imagine if this guy was a Muslim.” But, what does the research actually show about how different attackers are discussed in the news media, and what gaps remain in our understanding of how all this plays out?
Most recently, after the Christchurch attack in New Zealand, the Daily Mirror, a British tabloid, was heavily criticized for the way it covered the shooter – “Angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right mass killer” – compared with the newspaper’s tone on attacker Omar Mateen in the 2016 Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida – “ISIS Maniac Kills 50 in Gay Nightclub.”
These debates often descend into a kind of battle of anecdotes and Google Images. One side attempts to point out that deep-seated white privilege has an impact on whether and how white attackers are discussed in the public sphere, while the other side dismisses the existence of such a bias. Journalist and commentator Mehdi Hasan recently went on MSNBC to argue that, for white mass shooters, the question is “always, was he mentally ill, deranged, loner,” while a Muslim shooter is always “a terrorist fueled by ideology.” His appearance on the show sparked a lively debate on Twitter, which again had different commentators speaking past one another.
The facts around this issue are important, and go beyond mere Twitter spats. They speak to fundamental issues of white privilege and racialized media coverage and, especially in our current political climate, has the potential to fuel further division and polarization in our communities.
What We Know
Public debate about any potential media bias in how terrorism is covered often relies on anecdotes or cherry-picked examples. To truly measure and understand variations in media coverage of terrorism, we need two things: a clear set of cases to study and a clear set of media sources to consider. As researchers, we rely on incident-level terrorism datasets that are systemic and unbiased – such as the Global Terrorism Database – to identify which attacks to study. We then consider all media coverage of those incidents from a specific news outlet or set of news outlets.
First, what do we know about the quantity of news coverage that different terrorist attacks receive? Studies have shown that New York Times coverage of U.S.-based terrorism, both pre– and post-9/11, sensationalizes some attacks while largely ignoring others.
Looking at print coverage of U.S.-based terrorism more broadly, a study co-authored by one of us in January, shows that Muslim-perpetrated attacks receive, on average, 4.5 times more coverage than attacks by non-Muslims. In this study, the researchers examined media coverage of the 136 terrorist attacks in the United States—as identified in the Global Terrorism Database—between 2006 and 2015. They searched for print-media coverage of these attacks through Lexis Nexis Academic and CNN.com. Results show that a number of factors, including a perpetrator’s religion but also the number of fatalities, whether or not the perpetrator is arrested, and the target type, all influence how much media coverage a particular attack receives.
A study of 146 network and cable news programs between 2008 and 2012 found that 81 percent of terrorism suspects that were subjects of news reporting were Muslim, far greater than the percentage of terrorist attacks in the U.S. that were committed by Muslims during the same time period. While some of these suspects may have been outside of the U.S., there still appears to be over-coverage of Muslims as terrorists. When we consider television news, the trend is the same: Muslims are over-represented as terrorists.
Second, what do we know about the differences in how media cover terrorism? For one, how media frames an incident – whether “terrorism” or some form of mental illness — may be differentially applied based on the perpetrator’s religion. Contrary to journalist Hasan’s argument, Robin Simcox of the Heritage Foundation and Rukmini Callimachi of the New York Times provided examples of discussions of mental illness in Muslim attackers.
As researchers, though, we think in probabilities, meaning what is more or less likely. So “always” or “never” are generally not useful terms for examining these trends. Similarly, a few counter-examples do not mean that no such bias in coverage exists.
To date, two studies have examined differences in how media use the “terrorism” or “mental illness” frames to describe extremist violence. A 2011 study of media coverage for 11 U.S.-based attacks between November 2001 and December 2009 suggests that Muslim perpetrators tend to be portrayed as linked to al-Qaeda and motivated by a holy war against the U.S. In contrast, non-Muslim U.S. citizens are more likely to be described as mentally unstable and coming from families that do not support such violence.
Similarly, a comparison of media coverage of Dylann Roof after his 2015 assault on a historically African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, and Omar Mateen’s Orlando shooting shows that mental health was discussed roughly three times more in coverage of Roof, whereas terrorism or the term “terrorist” was mentioned roughly three times more in coverage of Mateen.
These two studies are a first step in suggesting that there may be differences in how media cover terrorist attacks. Still, neither study is a systematic examination of all terrorist attacks in the country over a particular time period. It is possible that the 13 total attacks examined in these studies are somehow different—or covered differently—than other terrorist attacks that also occurred in the U.S. over the same time period, so a more complete survey might yield different results.
In the absence of a systematic study, though, we cannot at present say whether or not there are, indeed, average differences in how media frame terrorism based on the perpetrator’s racial or religious identity. So, the debate continues.
Why This Matters
Regardless of whether or not media differentially apply the “terrorism” and “mental illness” labels based on perpetrator identity, one thing is clear: Muslim attackers receive more news media coverage.
Together with entertainment media that over-represents Muslims and Arabs as terrorists or villains, this helps to perpetuate the association between Islam and terrorism. Indeed, people are more likely to label an attack as terrorism when the perpetrator is Muslim. Further, multiple studies show that people are more likely to call an attack “terrorism” when the perpetrator is Muslim, even when all other factors are the same. This leads to several issues, aside from the occasional Twitter argument, that are worth taking seriously.
For instance, how, among other things, is the disproportionate association of Muslims with terrorism affecting the political discourse, which inevitably colors national security policy? How is this association affecting the allocation of national security resources when it comes to monitoring groups of different ideological persuasions, both online and offline? How is this association, in turn, affecting news coverage of other international developments, such as foreign wars or refugee flows?
More research is needed to properly answer these questions. However, studies have shown that media depictions of Muslims can influence support for policies that harm Muslim communities. As such, and particularly as far-right political discourse and violence seem to be resurging, media organizations should be more attuned to how their coverage is affecting the range of acceptable discourse about already marginalized and stereotyped communities.
IMAGE: A man stops to observe the makeshift memorial in front of Mother Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston, South Carolina, on Jan. 4, 2017. Dylann Roof, the self-described white supremacist who gunned down nine black churchgoers in a Charleston church, offered no apology or motive for his actions as a jury began considering whether to sentence him to death. (Photo by LOGAN CYRUS/AFP/Getty Images)