America has a skewed perception of what qualifies as terrorism

Researchers say Americans react differently depending on a perpetrator's race, religion, and methods.

A police officer runs along a sidewalk near the scene of the Las Vegas shooting. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher
A police officer runs along a sidewalk near the scene of the Las Vegas shooting. CREDIT: AP Photo/John Locher

By many metrics, Monday’s horrific mass shooting in Las Vegas, Nevada — which left nearly 60 people dead and hundreds wounded — followed the agonizingly familiar patterns of America’s endless string of mass shootings. But one thing was different. As many observers on social media pointed out with deep frustration, law enforcement negated the possibility that the shooter is a “terrorist” with alarming speed — especially when compared to other recent attacks in which the suspected perpetrator was a Muslim or a person of color.

Authorities have thus far held firm in their assessment that there isn’t enough evidence to label suspected shooter Stephen Paddock a terrorist in the literal sense, dismissing claims by extremist group ISIS that the shooter was acting on their accord. Erin Kearns, a terrorist expert and professor of criminology at the University of Alabama, said this is likely the right approach.

“The essential thing needed to call an attack terrorism is that it needs to have a political motive,” she said. “For the Las Vegas shooting, we should not be labeling it as terrorism at this time without more information.”

But Kearns also noted that while this standard “should be applied to all attacks regardless of the perpetrator’s identity,” that’s rarely how things play out in practice. In fact, a new wave of scholarly research suggests the media and Americans at large have wildly different responses to a mass killing depending on the perpetrator’s race, religion, and methods.

Part of this discrepancy is legal, as authorities often find themselves mired in the fog of ambiguity surrounding the term “domestic terrorism.” Technically, the PATRIOT Act does provide a categorical framework for lawyers by describing “domestic terrorism“ as acts that occur primarily in the U.S., that are “dangerous to human life,” and that appear designed to influence public opinion, policy, or “the conduct of government.” But, as ThinkProgress reported in 2015, officials are often reticent to cite domestic terrorism when litigating so-called “lone-wolf” mass murders—a term typically used to describe white male extremists.


“I think it’s the case that people are never charged with [domestic terrorism],” Gary LaFree, the director of the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism at the University of Maryland, told ThinkProgress. “I’m not even sure there’s entire agreement within the government on [the term]. Most people in the U.S. system for terrorism, or what many people would classify as terrorism, have instead been convicted of homicide or money laundering or some other violation.”

“Most people in the U.S. system for terrorism, or what many people would classify as terrorism, have instead been convicted of homicide or money laundering and some other violation.”

This is partly because concrete laws outlining the actual penalties for crimes defined as domestic terrorism often don’t exist. LaFree noted that prosecutors are more likely to get results using other legal strategies; e.g., the statutes used to convict Oklahoma City Bomber Timothy McVeigh (mass murder) and Charleston shooter Dylann Roof (hate crimes and murder).

“Lawyers use ordinary charges instead of terrorism is because they’re easier to prove,” LaFree said.

But research suggests there is even more going on here.

The paucity of domestic terrorism statutes mirrors the disproportionate way that media outlets cover violent attacks. According to a recent study ThinkProgress reported on in June, news outlets are far more likely to expend resources covering terrorists who claim a Muslim identity. Researchers examining a data set of violent incidents between 2006 to 2015 found that extremists who claimed Islam saw a 200 percent increase in news coverage compared to other groups. When they isolated incidents from 2011 to 2015, the number leaped to 449 percent.


Other scholars say the problem isn’t just the amount of coverage per incident—it’s also how they’re covered. Earlier this year, researchers at Georgetown University, Pennsylvania State University, and Concordia University published preliminary findings of their analysis of media coverage surrounding several recent mass killings. They found telling differences between the coverage of Dylann Roof’s attack on a black church in Charleston, South Carolina and Omar Mateen’s shooting of a gay night club in Orlando, Florida.

“The content of the coverage differs,” Fouad Pervez, a partner at Blind Fox Analytics and Georgetown PhD who works on the project, told ThinkProgress. “It’s far more objective when it comes to Roof. And a bit more subjective when it comes to Mateen.”

A graph of
A graph highlighting the difference between coverage of Dylann Roof vs. Omar Mateen. CREDIT: Fouad Pervez

Pervez said that in Roof’s case, media outlets tended to focus on the more “explanatory” details of the attack, spilling most of their ink parsing the precise details of what occurred. Coverage of Mateen, by contrast, often included broader terms such as “terrorism,” “extremism,” or “radicalization.”

Journalists typically pointed to Mateen’s relatively weak connection to an existing hate structure (ISIS), Pervez said, but were far more hesitant to do the same with Roof—despite his vocal white supremacist beliefs. “With Roof, it’s more of a discussion of ‘is this terrorism?’” he said.

“The content of the coverage differs. It’s far more objective when it comes to [Dylann] Roof. And a bit more subjective when it comes to [Omar] Mateen.”

Pervez added that, while more research is needed, similar patterns emerged when a white supremacist allegedly rammed his car into a crowd of counter-protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia in August, leaving one woman dead and several more wounded. “There was such caution in media coverage of Charlottesville. Just crazy nuance to understand the roots of what’s going on with this.”

A graph contrasting coverage of the violence in Charlottesville with the coverage of the attack in Barcelona. CREDIT: Fouad Pervez

The nuance that Pervez refers to may stem from media outlets’ attempt to reflect on the skewed perception of what typically constitutes terrorism to the American public.


Kearns pointed to a survey of Americans that she and a team of other researchers conducted both before and after Roof’s rampage. Although the data—which was collected before the Charlottesville protests—is still being analyzed, she said respondents were more likely to describe an incident as “terrorism” if (a) the attacker is thought to be Muslim versus a Neo-Nazi; (b) the attack was on a government building versus a synagogue; (c) the assailants used bombs instead of guns; or (d) it involved multiple perpetrators versus one individual.

Still, pre-existing cultural biases don’t abscond the media from blame, especially when reporters actively reinforce those biases in their work. Every expert ThinkProgress interviewed for this story stressed that journalists play an outsized role in influencing not just how the public perceives an incident, but also how political figures react.

“The response to terrorism by governments can be incredible in terms of civil liberties,” LaFree said. “This is my argument of why, as of all things social and political, we’re trying to get the most accurate picture possible.”

And while outlets often rush to offer the latest information in the aftermath of a terrorist incident, researchers insisted more caution is needed—regardless of the suspected perpetrator’s identity.

“I understand that from the the media’s perspective, in the immediate aftermath of the attack, there is pressure to have all the answers,” Kearns said. “That leads to speculation and reporting inaccurate information. There is perhaps not as much skepticism or hesitancy in reporting information that we don’t yet know.”