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The Way Media Portray Terrorism Matters

Media coverage of terrorism and terrorist attacks has long been rife with problems, from newspapers publishing the Christchurch attackers manifesto, to broadcasting an unedited Da’esh propaganda video, to being dependent on terrorist groups as primary sources.

  • These problems are having real world impacts that go beyond the 24-hour news cycle, and they strike at the heart of our democracies and societies.

In short: Media coverage of terrorism and terrorist attacks suffers from systemic bias that negatively impacts marginalized communities and feeds terrorism itself.


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A Systemic Bias: The systemic biases found in media coverage of terrorism is made clear when comparing coverage of:

Suspected attacks vs. actual terrorist attacks.

  • Studies have shown that people are more likely to perceive Muslim perpetrators of violent attacks as terrorists, and to judge them negatively for that behaviour, regardless of if the violence was actually terrorism.
  • Journalists frequently jump to conclusions about the motivations of attackers when they are a member of a visible minority, such as when a German man of Iranian descent was labelled as an ‘Islamist terrorist’ in the media despite having been motivated by a far-right ideology.
  • According to the UN, Islamist attackers are frequently labelled in the media and academia as “terrorists,” while far-right attackers are often labeled as “violent extremists” instead.

Terrorists who are white vs. terrorists who are part of a visible minority

  • Terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist terrorists in the US from 2006 to 2015 received 357% more media coverage than any other form of terrorism.
  • Media organizations frequently portray Muslim attackers as terrorists and as part of a larger security threat. White perpetrators, meanwhile, are often framed as mentally ill “lone wolves” who stage singular, unconnected attacks.
  • Terrorist attacks perpetrated by Islamist terrorists tend to be presented in the media as internationally inspired, linked to foreign actors, and driven solely by radicalization rather than personal factors.
  • Media organizations show “selective sympathy” by focusing disproportionately on attacks in Western countries over attacks in Africa, Asia, or the Middle East.

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Hurting Marginalized Communities: The disproportionate and biased focus on Islamist terrorism over other forms of terrorism is hurting marginalized communities.

  • Media organizations use biased and negative imagery to portray Islamist terrorist attacks in a way that reinforces prejudices against Muslims, even if Muslims are among the the victims of the attacks.
  • US media coverage of Muslims is predominantly negative when compared to other religious groups.
  • Biased portrayals of Islamist terrorism often lead to retaliatory violence against Muslim communities, and have contributed to rising far-right terrorism in Western countries.
  • These biases also reinforce racial stereotypes that people of colour and other visible minorities are more dangerous and more likely to commit acts of terrorism.

The Wrong Security: Marginalized communities and visible minorities are not the only ones being hurt by biased media portrayals of terrorism: our societies as a whole are as well.

  • The threat of far-right terrorism is frequently overlooked due to the overemphasis on Islamist terrorism, despite far-right terrorists being responsible for 2-3x more attacks and deaths in the US.
  • There is a double standard in prosecuting terrorism. Some types of terrorism are not prosecuted or publicly represented as terrorism while others are. These government counter-terrorism strategies therefore ignore some threats while overemphasizing others, resulting in a self-fulfilling cycle of bias.
  • Media reliance on the narratives established by political leaders about terrorist attacks can be abused to further perpetuate biases against minorities and marginalized communities.
  • Media organizations continue to justify their naming of accused terrorists as being in the public interest, despite growing evidence that this helps idolize terrorists and encourages copycat attacks.

The Bottom Line: While recent anti-racism protests are forcing a reckoning of long-standing media biases against marginalized communities and visible minorities, a lot of progress still needs to be made with how the media portrays terrorism.

Police and security agencies are missing opportunities to prevent various non-Islamist forms of terrorism, and our social stability is being undermined as threats go unnoticed and unchecked.

Overall, the biased ways media organizations portray terrorism are having increasingly negative impacts on our democracies and societies.

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