When Is It 'Terrorism'? How The Media Cover Attacks By Muslim Perpetrators

Jun 19, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 6:20 pm

President Trump has often accused the news media of not covering terrorist attacks adequately. In a speech in February he said, "Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our homeland as they did on 9/11, as they did from Boston to Orlando to San Bernardino [...] It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported."

New research from Erin Kearns and colleagues at Georgia State University shows that the president is right — sort of. There is a systematic bias in the way terrorism is covered — just not in the way the president thinks.

Kearns says the "terrorism" label is often only applied to cases where the perpetrator is Muslim. And, those cases also receive significantly more news coverage.

"When the perpetrator is Muslim, you can expect that attack to receive about four and a half times more media coverage than if the perpetrator was not Muslim," Kearns says. Put another way, "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."

Perhaps these findings are not all that surprising to you. But there are disturbing implications for the way Americans perceive Muslims, and the way Muslims perceive themselves.

Muniba Saleem is a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. Saleem conducted a study in which volunteers were randomly assigned to watch video clips with different portrayals of Muslims before answering a series of questions.

Some volunteers watched news clips in which Muslims were represented as terrorists. Others saw neutral news clips about Muslims. A third group watched positive news clips, showing Muslims volunteering in their communities.

"Immediately after being exposed to the video clips we asked them what they think about Muslims in terms of how aggressive they are, how violent they are," Saleem says. "But we also asked them whether they support various kinds of public policies that are targeting Muslims."

The researchers discovered that after participants watched the negative news clips, they supported all kinds of unconstitutional policies targeting Muslim Americans.

Saleem is Muslim herself, and has experienced firsthand the way terrorist attacks and media coverage of them can skew public perceptions. When the September 11th attacks occurred, Saleem was a high school student in Ohio.

"The fact that I was a Muslim was enough to put me in the same category as these perpetrators who committed these terrible crimes," Saleem says. "And it didn't matter that I was a teenager, or that I was American, that I was Pakistani. What mattered was that Muslim identity."

As a social psychologist today, Muniba Saleem now understands many things that she did not understand as a 15-year-old kid in Ohio. Terrorism doesn't just have physical consequences. It has a number of psychological effects as well.

We explore some of those effects — this week on Hidden Brain.

The Hidden Brain Podcast is hosted by Shankar Vedantam and produced by Maggie Penman, Jennifer Schmidt, Renee Klahr, Rhaina Cohen, and Parth Shah. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle. You can also follow us on Twitter @hiddenbrain, and listen for Hidden Brain stories each week on your local public radio station.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, HOST:

This is HIDDEN BRAIN. I'm Shankar Vedantam. For the past few weeks, we've been looking at how race, religion and identity intersect with the criminal justice system. Previous episodes have looked at the effectiveness of the broken windows policing strategy, the effects of implicit bias on shootings of unarmed black men by police officers and how music, specifically rap music, shapes the way judges and jurors think about crime.

Today, we shift our attention to terrorism. In a speech in early February, President Donald Trump talked about the dangers of what he called radical Islamic terrorism.

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PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Radical Islamic terrorists are determined to strike our homeland as they did on 9/11, as they did from Boston to Orlando to San Bernardino.

VEDANTAM: He criticized the media for not adequately reporting on the threat.

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TRUMP: It's gotten to a point where it's not even being reported. And in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn't want to report it.

VEDANTAM: Is the president correct? Is the media failing to report accurately on terrorism? Is political correctness keeping us from grasping the true danger we face?

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MICHAEL FLYNN: Political correctness kills. It causes - it will cause death.

JAMES WOOLSEY: You can't fight something effectively that you can't talk about.

VEDANTAM: This week, we step away from the politicians and the pundits to look at the empirical evidence, social science research into how the American media actually cover terrorist attacks. We will also look at what effect that has on our perceptions of terrorism and our attitudes toward the Muslim community. New research has found that there are indeed systematic biases in coverage but not in the way President Trump suggests.

ERIN KEARNS: 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.

VEDANTAM: How the media cover terrorism and what effect this has on us, this week on HIDDEN BRAIN.

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VEDANTAM: In 2014, two terrorist attacks occurred six months apart. They had eerie similarities. In both cases, two police officers were shot and killed. In both cases, a third victim was shot as well. Both ended with the perpetrators killing themselves. In the aftermath of the attacks, investigators learned of criminal records, missed red flags and anti-government threats on social media.

The first incident occurred in June 2014 in Las Vegas. It was carried out by a husband and wife team.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #1: We learned this afternoon the identities of a Las Vegas couple who ambushed and killed two police officers and gunned down a civilian who tried to stop them.

VEDANTAM: The couple was Jerad and Amanda Miller.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: Investigators described Jerad and Amanda Miller as anti-government and on a mission to kill police officers.

VEDANTAM: On the day of the shooting, Jerad posted this on Facebook - the dawn of a new day, may all our coming sacrifices be worth it.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #2: The Millers then covered the bodies with a swastika and a Gadsden flag, first used in the American Revolution, emblazoned with the words don't tread on me.

VEDANTAM: They left a note on the bodies of the slain officers. It read, this is the beginning of a revolution. The couple then walked to a nearby Walmart and ordered customers out. When they were challenged by one person, they killed him too. The rampage ended when the couple were confronted by authorities. Amanda shot and killed her husband and then killed herself. That was the first attack.

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VEDANTAM: The second one that we'll examine today occurred later the same year in late December. Before dawn on the morning of December 20, Ishmael Brinsley let himself into his ex-girlfriend's apartment in a Baltimore suburb. He pointed a gun at his own head and threatened to kill himself. When she talked him out of it, he shot her instead. She was injured but survived.

Ishmael then got on a bus to New York, where he shot and killed two police officers in Brooklyn. In a note he'd posted to social media earlier, he said he was intent on carrying out retribution for police killings of unarmed black men.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #3: Police say one of the last posts he put on social media was this - I always wanted to be known for doing something right, he said. But my past is stalking me, and my present is haunting me. The post followed with another ominous warning. I'm putting wings on pigs today, he wrote. They take one of ours. Let's take two of theirs.

KEARNS: On balance, these two incidents are fairly similar in that they've both killed two police officers, so we should expect more coverage because of the targets, because of the fatalities.

VEDANTAM: This is Erin Kearns. She's a criminologist to Georgia State University. Erin and her colleagues have been studying the way that the media cover terrorist attacks and the amount of coverage different incidents receive.

KEARNS: The Millers actually killed an additional person. So you'd expect that, if anything, that might have a little bit more coverage.

VEDANTAM: But that isn't what Erin and her co-authors found.

KEARNS: Ishmael Brinsley received about four-and-a-half times more coverage than the Millers, and he was Muslim.

VEDANTAM: The fact that Ishmael Brinsley's case received so much more coverage than Jerad and Amanda Miller's could be explained by a number of factors. Perhaps it had something to do with the fact that his attack was in New York City, while the Millers were in Las Vegas. New York is a bigger city, the center of the news media. Concerns about Mayor Bill de Blasio's relationship with the New York Police Department may have added fuel to the fire. The story came at a time when race and policing was often in the news. But Erin Kearns and her fellow researchers have found there is another factor that determines which attacks catch the attention of the media and which don't.

KEARNS: When the perpetrator is Muslim, you can expect that attack to receive about four-and-a-half times more media coverage than if the perpetrator was not Muslim.

VEDANTAM: Put another way...

KEARNS: A perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about 7 more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who's Muslim.

VEDANTAM: Perhaps this is not a huge surprise to you. If you've watched coverage of a recent terrorist attack, you might have a sense that this was the case.

KEARNS: The results themselves I don't think were very surprising to myself and to my colleagues. The magnitude of the findings, though, is something that we were all taken a little bit aback by, that it's such a drastic difference in coverage when the perpetrator is Muslim.

VEDANTAM: Erin and her colleagues did not include broadcast journalism in their data set. In other words, this analysis does not encompass the dramatic coverage on cable news, coverage like this.

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UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #4: U.S. officials believe Farook's wife, Tashfeen Malik, had been radicalized before stepping foot in the U.S., raising alarm bells about the fiancee visa she came in on.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #5: And as we've been reporting, law enforcement officials identifying their suspect as 29-year-old Omar Seddique Mateen, as we've said, a U.S. citizen.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: But we should also point out that the New York Daily News has been on a jihad against conservatives over the...

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST#5: Right.

UNIDENTIFIED JOURNALIST #6: ...Last couple of weeks.

VEDANTAM: The researchers looked mostly at print news sources like The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, local papers from around the country, as well as cnn.com. Ironically, it's these mainstream media outlets that are routinely accused of political correctness in their coverage of terrorism. The researchers studied these sources for their coverage of terrorist incidents within the United States.

They looked at a five-year period from 2011 to 2015. This study did not look at foreign news source's coverage of terrorism or how the U.S. media outlets cover terrorism in other countries. To identify cases to study, the researchers used a dataset called the Global Terrorism Database.

KEARNS: The way that terrorism is defined within the Global Terrorism Database is talking about the threat or use of violence, the incident having a political, religious, social or economic motive, being committed by a noncombatant and with the goal being to, you know, for fear, to coerce or intimidate a population.

VEDANTAM: Jerad and Amanda Miller were self-identified white supremacists. They were affiliated with a far-right group. They intentionally sought out and killed police officers and said it was the beginning of a revolution. This would fall cleanly under the Global Terrorism Database's definition of terrorism. But Erin and her co-authors have noticed that the media and, in turn, the public, do not apply the terrorism label evenly. That was the case with another attack that same year.

KEARNS: After the Frazier Glenn Miller attack in Kansas back in 2014, where Frazier Glenn Miller, who was a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, killed three people at a synagogue, yelled Heil Hitler at the end of the attack, this wasn't described as terrorism very commonly in the media, which led one of my co-authors, Dr. Anthony Lemieux, to write a piece then about why we aren't applying this label to this particular attack, even though it clearly fits within it.

VEDANTAM: To examine how people draw conclusions about which cases of terrorism should be labeled terrorism, the researchers conducted a study.

KEARNS: We have presented participants with real-life terrorist attacks. And what we found is that when the perpetrator of those attacks was Muslim, people were much more likely to consider it to be terrorism than when the perpetrator was not Muslim. In those cases, people were more likely to say that perhaps it's a hate crime or not be sure how to classify it.

VEDANTAM: The problem with studying actual incidents of terrorism is that each one has many idiosyncratic features. It's difficult to tell whether differences in perception and coverage in cases such as the Jerad and Amanda Miller shooting and the Ishmael Brinsley shooting are because of the identity of the perpetrator or some other factor.

To address this problem, the researchers conducted an experiment. They controlled for all sorts of different factors. Volunteers were given descriptions of fake terrorist attacks, including the location, the number of casualties and other details. Holding everything constant, volunteers saw the cases differently when the perpetrator was Muslim.

KEARNS: What we found here, again, is that even if the target's the same, the weapon is the same, if the perpetrator is Muslim, the participants are much more likely to consider that to be terrorism.

VEDANTAM: The tendency not to give some cases of terrorism that label and to cover other cases more intensively shapes the way we all think about the phenomenon. Erin and her colleagues looked at how many terrorist attacks in the United States are actually carried out by Muslim extremists. The result might surprise you.

KEARNS: So if we look at these attacks in this five-year window, we see that only about 12 percent of them were perpetrated by Muslims, whereas over 50 percent actually were perpetrated by some far-right cause. But most people don't perceive that as being what the actual threat is.

VEDANTAM: To be clear, that 12 percent number is disproportionate. Muslims account for just 1 percent of the U.S. population. But in a rational world, this should mean that 12 percent of the media's coverage of terrorism would be of terrorism committed by Muslims. When we come back, we'll hear about some of the psychological reasons this doesn't happen. Stay with us.

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MUNIBA SALEEM: My name is Muniba Saleem, and I am an assistant professor at the Department of Communication Studies at University of Michigan.

VEDANTAM: Muniba Saleem studies how the media cover terrorism. She's also interested in how the media can change the way we relate to one another. Her interest in these subjects goes back to her own childhood. Muniba, who is Muslim, was in high school in Ohio when the Sept. 11 attacks occurred.

SALEEM: As even a high school student, had to answer questions regarding, you know, why did this individual think that this was the right thing to do? Or what does my faith say about these kinds of actions? And to be honest, at that point, I'm not sure if I even knew what to say or how to answer these kinds of questions. But I did have to answer them, nonetheless.

VEDANTAM: As a teenager, she struggled to understand the shift in the way others thought of her.

SALEEM: The fact that I was a Muslim was enough to put me in the same category as these perpetrators who had committed these terrible crimes. And it didn't matter that I was a teenager or that I was an American or that I was Pakistani. It just - what mattered was that Muslim identity. That seemed to kind of over-encompass all of the other information that people had about me.

And so I was asked questions, you know, regarding, you know, what is Islam? What does it say about these acts of terrorism? And do you believe in the kinds of things that these people did? Do you sympathize with what they have done? Do you hate Americans? Are you anti - I mean, all of these series of questions that I had honestly never faced before.

VEDANTAM: Muniba remembers one instance several years later where she was watching a play and there was a joke about American politics.

SALEEM: The entire audience laughed in the theater, and I'd laughed as well, as did my friends and this couple that was sitting next to me. But then I noticed that they were very aware of the fact that I was laughing. And during the intermission, they made this comment where the lady turned around and she said, you know, it wouldn't hurt you to be more supportive of America. And I thought about why was I being pointed out for laughing, as opposed to everybody else in the audience who also thought that that was a funny comment?

VEDANTAM: As a social psychologist today, Muniba Saleem understands many things she did not understand as a 15-year-old kid in Ohio. Terrorism doesn't just have physical consequences. It has a number of psychological effects. For one thing, simply reminding people of death, as Sept. 11 certainly did, can change the way people think.

SALEEM: It did a lot of things. It increased, you know, this concept of mortality, which psychology shows that whenever that happens, we also then tend to have more in-group cohesion, which basically means that we tend to kind of stick to our in-groups. We tend to be more patriotic. We tend to support things that are of our nation a little bit more. So it provided a lot of those kinds of psychological effects as well.

VEDANTAM: Muniba also came to understand why many Muslims were seen with suspicion in post-9/11 America. It has to do with something called salience. When you look out at the world, certain details seem to pop out at you. They are more salient than others.

SALEEM: We generally like to think about ourselves and the groups to which we belong in a more positive manner because it makes us feel good about ourselves. So any group that we are not a part of, that's what's referred to as our out-groups. And so that information is always going to be examined a little bit more closely and scrutinized a little bit more closely. So what that means is, as a woman, for me, the behavior of other women is perhaps - especially when it's negative, is not going to be as salient as the behavior of another man.

So one of those key elements is the fact that for a lot of our American audience who are non-Muslim, that Muslim identity was salient. The second part, of course, is that the perpetrators had claimed that they were doing this in the name of Islam. And so that identity or that label became very salient in people's minds.

VEDANTAM: You might ask why some identities become more salient than others. For example, the majority of terrorist attacks are carried out by men. But, while it's very common for Muniba to be questioned about why Muslims commit acts of terrorism, no one has ever asked me to explain why men become terrorists. Muniba says that has to do with who's in the majority and who's not.

SALEEM: Think about it as a jar of red marbles. If you only have a single blue marble within that jar, then wherever that blue marble is moving, that's going to become very salient to you. Because in that jar of red marbles, that blue marble sticks out a little bit more. And so I think there's a little bit of that happening in the way in which we oftentimes encounter news stories that are referring to racial and ethnic minorities.

VEDANTAM: Of course, the 9/11 attackers explicitly said they were acting in the name of all Muslims. They didn't say they were acting in the name of all men. But Muniba's point is that because Muslims are a small minority and men are not, the misdeeds of Muslims become salient to us. This also holds true for other minorities and other crimes.

The researcher Shanto Iyengar at Stanford University once conducted a study where he presented stories about local crime to volunteers. He found that when volunteers saw that an African-American perpetrator was responsible for a crime, volunteers tended to extrapolate the stigma of criminality to African-Americans as a group. When a white American was responsible for an identical crime, volunteers typically saw the criminal as being an individual, an aberration rather than the rule.

Terrorist attacks also trigger another psychological phenomenon. Whereas normally we might see that a group of a billion people has enormous diversity, all kinds of different attitudes and political views, terrorism causes many Americans to view the entire Muslim world as fundamentally homogenous.

SALEEM: The idea behind that phenomena is actually referred to as out-group homogeneity. And all that is saying is that when the behavior or when the action is involving an out-group - the group that you don't belong to - then you think that all individuals within that group are, in fact, represented by that particular idea or that particular attribute. So you think that the entire out-group is homogeneous and they're all the same, they all talk the same, they all behave the same. So if one of them did something, then others must believe and act in the same way as well.

VEDANTAM: The way the media portray terrorism has serious effects not just on our perceptions of Muslims but on the public policies we support. In one study Muniba conducted, volunteers were randomly assigned to watch different clips of Muslims before answering a series of questions. Some volunteers watched news clips in which Muslims were represented as terrorists. Others saw neutral clips about Muslims. A third group saw positive news clips, clips that showed Muslims volunteering in their communities.

SALEEM: And immediately after being exposed to the video clips, we asked them what they think about Muslims in terms of how aggressive they are, how violent they are. But we also asked them whether they support various kinds of public policies that are targeting Muslims. And some of these were policies that were more for international countries, so military action in Muslim countries. And other policies were more domestic, so harsher civil restrictions for Muslim-Americans.

And what we discovered is that participants who were in the negative news condition ended up thinking of Muslims as more aggressive, as more violent and subsequently supported policies that were targeting Muslims both domestically and internationally compared to those who were in the neutral or positive news condition. So continuous coverage of Muslims as terrorists is simply activating and strengthening these kinds of associations, ultimately facilitating us to think of Muslims in an aggressive manner and then support harmful behavior towards them.

VEDANTAM: What was striking about this paper was not just that people supported aggressive foreign policy interventions, but they actually supported more aggressive policies toward American citizens who happen to be Muslim.

SALEEM: That was actually fascinating for me to know that a lot of Americans are not differentiating between Muslims who are living in other countries versus Muslim-Americans who are citizens and who are perhaps their neighbors and their friends. So we saw people supporting policies such as domestic surveillance without the consent of Muslim-Americans.

We saw individuals supporting perhaps that Muslim Americans should not be allowed to vote, that they should have separate and more thorough airport security lines, that they should be monitored, you know, by the government, their phones should be tapped without their consent, all kinds of unconstitutional policies. We saw Americans supporting those.

VEDANTAM: So when I look at this body of research, what I'm seeing when I step back and look at it is a series of processes that in some ways are driven by, you know, fairly understandable and normal, you know, human mental processes - the idea that we see aberrational things or unusual things happening together, we draw correlations between them, we see patterns. And members of the news media, of course, are human beings, and so they gravitate towards certain stories and cover those stories more aggressively because those stories stick out in their minds, they're more salient.

As a result of that kind of media coverage, your research is finding that the attitudes of Americans themselves is changing in a way that becomes hostile toward people living in their communities who are fellow American citizens who happen to be Muslim. And, you know, what is so troubling is that these relatively innocuous psychological biases can eventually have consequences that are anything but innocuous.

SALEEM: I think what's really important is to realize that these biases are not just simply something that's in our head but they are, in fact, affecting our behaviors and our public policy decisions towards Muslims both in this country and outside. And also, the other side of things, which I actually just recently started looking at, is how the same media representations are influencing Muslim-American youth and adolescents who are growing up in this country who identify both as Muslim and as American.

It's making them feel as if they cannot be both of those identities, even though there is no reason why they should feel that way. They're having to feel as if they have to choose one over the other because they're being questioned about their American identity on account of being Muslim. They're having to answer questions about their loyalty, their patriotism as an American. And that is, in fact, affecting how they think about themselves psychologically, their physical health, their self-esteem and a host of other important consequences.

VEDANTAM: In some ways, these findings are disheartening. It does feel like a vicious cycle. I asked Muniba if she saw any way to combat the psychological biases that terrorism produces.

SALEEM: I think one of the greatest ways to break the cycle - and this is supported by both anecdotal evidence but also research - is contact. Increased contact with Muslims, of course, especially when it's positive, tends to decrease reliance on these kinds of biases and then subsequently, you know, support for these kinds of harmful actions.

So time and time after again, we see that those Americans who have more contact with Muslims and more frequent contact tend to report less of these kinds of biases, tend to not support these kinds of policies as much. They tend to look at the media reports in a more critical manner. And they have a very good understanding that what they see in the media is not the entire story. So contact is definitely one of the most important things that we can talk about and we can encourage individuals to pursue in order to break this vicious cycle.

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VEDANTAM: Muniba Saleem is a social psychologist at the University of Michigan. This episode of HIDDEN BRAIN was produced by Maggie Penmen and Rhaina Cohen. Our staff includes Jenny Schmidt, Renee Klahr and Parth Shah. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle.

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VEDANTAM: Our unsung heroes this week are the staff of NPR One. Via Klee (ph), Emily Barocas and Jenny Gathright handpick stories that help listeners find shows like HIDDEN BRAIN. You can download the NPR One app in the app store. That's NPR O-N-E. You can follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and listen for my stories each week on your local public radio station. If you like this episode, please give us a rating on iTunes or wherever you listen to your podcasts. I'm Shankar Vedantam, and this is NPR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.