How Does the Media Determine Who Is a “Terrorist”?

Image courtesy of Modern Diplomacy

In an increasingly interconnected, digital world, access to news media is widespread, yet there are great disparities in how likely the media is to cover different terrorism attacks and how those attacks are portrayed. Since 9/11, ninety-nine people have been killed in 136 terror attacks within the United States, but the media coverage of these attacks has not treated each incident equally.

A recent study, published in Justice Quarterly, found that terrorist attacks orchestrated by Muslim extremists received 357% more coverage than those by non-Muslims.[1] The study brought to light important discussions within news media, including why people think of the Boston Marathon or Fort Hood when thinking of terrorism rather than attacks planned by white supremacists? The study was led by researchers from the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and Georgia State University, and the researchers analyzed the discrepancies in media coverage of attacks between Muslim and domestic terrorists. They looked at U.S. news about terrorism between 2006 and 2015. While controlling for other factors like target type, number of deaths, and whether the person was arrested, they discovered that religion is a determining factor for predicting news coverage of terrorism attacks. Out of 136 terror attacks in the U.S, on average, Muslims committed only 12.5 percent of the attacks, but received more than half of the media coverage. [2] The coverage is not aligned with reality, as white terrorists organized nearly twice as many attacks than Muslims.[3]

Disparities in media coverage have adverse effects on public perceptions and treatment of Muslim Americans, as it further solidifies Islamophobic conceptualizations of “who is a terrorist.” The study helps explain why the public fears a “Muslim terrorist,” while ignoring other threats. It not only has damaging effects individual perceptions of Muslim Americans, but it can increase support for anti-Muslim policies, such as immigration bans or quotas.[4]

The study demonstrated the inherent discrimination of Muslim peoples within news media, which necessitates a solution from reporters and news organizations to provide coverage that is inclusive and truthful to terrorism within the United States. Changing the rate of coverage for attacks done by non-Muslims is essential to alter public biases about Muslim Americans.

[1] Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others? (18th August 2017) Retrieved 23rd February 2019, from https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/07418825.2018.1524507.

[2] Great disparities exist in how media cover terror attacks (19th February 2019). Retrieved 23rd February 2019, from https://phys.org/news/2019-02-great-disparities-news-media-terror.html.

[3] Terror attacks by Muslims receive 357% more press attention, study finds (20th July 2017). Retrieved 24th February 2019, from https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/jul/20/muslim-terror-attacks-press-coverage-study.

[4] How news coverage of terrorism may shape support for anti-Muslim policies. (21st February 2019). Retrieved 23rd February 2019, from https://phys.org/news/2019-02-news-coverage-terrorism-anti-muslim-policies.html

Shannon Howley

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