Media, terrorism and religious idenity – How The Media Cover Attacks in US By Muslim Perpetrators and Others

Which attacks catch the attention of the media and which don’t. Besides factors such as number of fatalities and targets, other factors play a  role.

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. […]. 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. to

This is part of the findings of the study Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?. It has received a lot of media attention, also in the Netherlands, but often without a reference to the paper and sometimes even without mentioning the name of the authors. How difficult can that be dear journalists? Just name the researchers and give a reference to the paper (a link would suffice)!

Anyhow, the study is conducted by three researchers from Georgia State University: Erin M. Kearns, Allison Betus and Anthony Lemieux. The abstract reads:

Terrorist attacks often dominate news coverage as reporters seek to provide the public with information about the event, its perpetrators, and the victims. Yet, not all incidents receive equal attention. Why do some terrorist attacks receive more media coverage than others? We argue that social identity is the largest predictor of news coverage, while target type, being arrested, and fatalities will also impact coverage. We examined news coverage from LexisNexis Academic and for all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. Controlling for target type, fatalities, and being arrested, attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks. Given the disproportionate quantity of news coverage for these attacks, it is no wonder that people are afraid of the Muslim terrorist. More representative media coverage could help to bring public perception of terrorism in line with reality.

The researchers focus on the quantity of media attention and not so much on the content. In the final section of their interesting paper they state:

Might media be reticent to use the term “terrorist” to describe some attackers? How do casualty rates report the way that media discusses attacks? When is speculation about the perpetrator’s mental health more prevalent? In future projects, we will explore questions about the
content of what is said in media reports on terrorist attacks. (Kearns, Betus and Lemieux 2017:12)

The above mentioned quotes are taken from a NPR broadcast with Erin M. Kearns which makes really good listening. Also social psychologist, Muniba Saleem, provides some excellent clues of why Muslims are singled out in the media coverage: terrorism has also psychological effects.

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.

[…]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.

Listen also to this short discussion about the research by Kearns, Betus en Lemieux:

Kearns, Erin M. and Betus, Allison and Lemieux, Anthony, Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others? (March 5, 2017). Available at SSRN:

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