Non-Muslim attackers get a lot less media coverage than those who claim Islam

A policeman carries flowers left by a well-wisher after a driver plowed into a crowd of people leaving a mosque early Monday morning. CREDIT: AP/Alastair Grant

It’s been several hours since news broke of horrific attacks on two different mosques: one in London, where a man allegedly mowed down several people standing outside their house of worship, and another in Virginia, where a 17-year-old Muslim girl who left evening prayers only to be murdered with a baseball bat.

Details are still emerging, but the incidents share at least one major commonality: In both cases, the perpetrator does not appear to be Muslim.

Now, as the minutes tick by, a growing number of frustrated journalists and pundits have noted that President Donald Trump — a notoriously prolific tweeter — has yet to respond to either tragedy. Instead, Trump tweeted and then promptly deleted a message promoting his lawyer’s appearance on Fox & Friends, before tweeting his support for a congressional candidate in Georgia hours later.

As frustrating as Trump’s selective outrage may be, a team of researchers from Georgia State University say the issue of unbalanced attention to these kind of attacks extends far beyond the Oval Office. It’s also a common problem within the media.

According to a new study covered in a Washington Post op-ed in March, attacks by people claiming to be Muslim received 449 percent more coverage on average in recent years than those perpetrated by virtually anyone else.

“When attacks are perpetrated by a Muslim, they receive drastically more coverage.”

Erin Kearns, the lead author of the study, told ThinkProgress her team looked at attacks specifically designated as “terrorist incidents” by the Global Terrorism Database (GTD), which is housed at the University of Maryland. The GTD updates their just list once a year, so Kearns and her fellow authors only looked at incidents occurring from 2011–2015.

“When attacks are perpetrated by a Muslim, they receive drastically more coverage,” Kearns said in a phone interview.

Kearns says her team is still conducting research for the final paper, which is currently in the peer review process. Since publishing their initial findings, the group has expanded its research to include coverage of incidents dating back to 2006. They are also considering other factors that could enhance coverage, such as the target of an attack, the number of people killed, and whether or not the culprit was arrested.

But even accounting for all these variables and data sets, Kearns said they still see far more headlines for attackers who cite Islam as their inspiration.

“Across every model that we looked at, we’re still finding that Muslim perpetrators have at least 200 percent increase in coverage,” she said.

Kearns and her colleagues argue that disproportionate media attention can warp how the public understands terrorist threats, placing an emphasis on Muslims that is divorced from reality. Indeed, while militants who say they are inspired by Islam kill people every year, two terrorism experts declared in 2015 that Americans are actually far more likely to be killed by a right-wing extremist.

“Across every model that we looked at, we’re still finding that Muslim perpetrators have at least 200 percent increase in coverage.”

The paper also touched on a stark double standard within the media regarding the use of the term “terrorist,” noting that “the key difference…is the perpetrator(s) social identity.” For example, while there were debates over whether to use the moniker to describe recent attacks carried out by white men — such as the murder of nine African American worshipers in Charleston, South Carolina in 2015 or the shooting at a Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs that same year — the word “terrorist” was ascribed almost immediately to the gunman who perpetrated the Pulse Nightclub attack in Orlando, Florida.

“In the absence of reliable data, you can get into these political debates on what is or isn’t terrorism,” Kearns told ThinkProgress. “These discussions should be informed by empirical evidence.”

Kearns wouldn’t speculate on the connection between media coverage of an attack and the reaction of politicians, but the phenomenon is clearly echoed in the political sphere. President Trump, for instance, tweeted out a response to the recent attack by ISIS-affiliated militants in London within hours, and even retweeted a Drudge Report headline that contained unconfirmed information about the incident. But it took him days to respond to the fatal stabbing of two men in Portland, Oregon, who were allegedly helping defend two Muslim women from an white supremacist. Even more telling: Trump offered no public statement when an allegedly white suspect opened fire at a mosque in Canada, killing at least six people (instead, he called the Canadian prime minister to offer his condolences).

Tracking these issues is important, because the way the media — and politicians — frame these incidents can have lasting real-world impacts. According to recent studies by Pew Research and Claremont Graduate University, positive opinions of Islam and Muslims in the United States unexpectedly increased after the September 11 attacks, a shift mirrored in France after the Charlie Hebo shootings in Paris. At least one researcher believes this change was likely a result of politicians and media who pushed messages opposing Islamophobia.

Kearns says she and others are already working on another paper examining this exact issue, comparing news reports of militants who cite Islam to those claiming to be a Christian, a general right-wing extremist, an Odinist, or — as appears to be the case with the alleged gunman who shot several members of Congress last week — a liberal.

No matter what, Kearns says one thing is already clear: “Whether or not [an attack is] terrorism is up for debate, but you don’t see that label used…as quickly when the person [isn’t Muslim].”