A study conducted by researchers at Georgia State University found that terror attacks in the US between 2011-2015, when perpetrated by a Muslim, received five times more US media coverage as compared to terror attacks committed by non-Muslim perpetrators.
“On February 6, 2017, President Trump stated that media neglect to report some terrorist attacks,” write Erin Kearns, Allison Betus and Anthony Lemieux who undertook the study. “It turns out that President Trump was right: media do not cover some terrorist attacks at all, while disproportionately covering others,” the report states. There is a systematic bias in media coverage. The underreported ones, however, turned out to be different sort of attacks than what Trump had been implying, which is, radical Islamic terror attacks.
The analysis of news reports in print publications from that period showed that: “Regardless of other factors, attacks perpetrated by Muslims receive a disproportionate amount of media coverage. In the present data, Muslims perpetrated 12.4 per cent of the attacks yet received 41.4 per cent of the news coverage.”
There are of course many reasons as to why some attacks receive more coverage than others, such as their taking place in a prominent, hub-of-media city or the number of fatalities. Kearns and her colleagues found that the perpetrator’s being a Muslim was also a factor. On average an attack by a Muslim perpetrator received four and a half times more media attention than in the case when the perpetrator was not a Muslim. “A perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about seven more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who’s Muslim”, Kearns told NPR. While the conclusion did not surprise the researchers, the magnitude of the difference did.
The definition of terrorism used in the study was, ‘the threat or the use of violence and the incident having a political, religious, social or economic motive and being committed by a non-combatant with the goal being fear, to coerce or intimidate a population.’ The attacks analysed by the researchers fell in this category.
The study found that the Boston Marathon bombing of 2013, which was carried about by two Muslim terrorists and took the lives of three, emerged as a hyper salient event in this context. It accounted for a whopping, nearly 20 per cent of the media coverage on terrorism between 2011-2015. Compared to that, a 2012 Sikh gurdwara massacre in the state of Wisconsin which left six people dead and was carried out by Wade Michael Page, a Caucasian man, received just 3.8 per cent coverage. The attack on a Kansas synagogue by Frazier Glenn Miller, who belonged to the Ku Klux Klan — a white supremacist group — and which left three dead accounted for just 3.3 per cent coverage. Similarly, Dylan Roof’s attack on an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 where nine people were murdered, received only 7.4 per cent of news reports. What united the latter three attacks was: a caucasian perpetrator and that the word ‘terrorism’ was used inconsistently to describe them.
The way attacks are labelled, shapes the public perception of terrorism. To examine how people examined and determined which cases amounted to terrorism, the researchers conducted another study. “We presented participants with real life terrorist attacks and what we found is that when the perpetrator of those attacks were Muslims, people were much more likely to consider them ‘terrorism’”, Kearns told NPR. In the other cases, they were much more likely to call them ‘hate crimes’ or be unsure about how to classify. Further, even when all other factors were controlled, it was found that the perpetrator’s identity as Muslim led participants to consider the attack as terrorism.
“Whether the disproportionate coverage is a conscious decision on the part of journalists or not, stereotyping reinforces cultural narratives about what and who should be feared,” the researchers write. “Based on these findings, it is no wonder that Americans are so fearful of radical Islamic terrorism. Reality shows, however, that these fears are misplaced,” they concluded.