Media’s Unbalanced Coverage Of Terrorism Leaves Americans With “An Exaggerated Sense Of That Threat”
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The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog published a report that found that news media give “drastically more coverage to attacks by Muslims, particularly foreign-born Muslims -- even though those are far less common” than terror attacks committed by non-Muslims. The finding debunks President Donald Trump’s suggestion that the media underreport terror attacks by Muslim perpetrators.
On February 6, Trump baselessly claimed that terror attacks are “not even reported, and in many cases the very, very dishonest press doesn't even want to report it." The White House then released a list of “78 major terrorist attacks targeting the West that were executed or inspired by ISIS since September 2014.” The administration primarily listed attacks committed by Muslims, omitted any mention of right-wing terrorism, and included several attacks that were in fact reported extensively. Trump and White House senior counselor Kellyanne Conway also both have referenced terror attacks allegedly committed by Muslims that actually never happened.
Trump’s false claim is just one facet of his ongoing campaign to demonize and fearmonger about Muslims; he has also on several occasions stated his intent to ban Muslims from the United States. But in fact, Muslims (and others mistaken for Muslims) in the United States are often the target of violence from white supremacists, and their voices are underrepresented in the news media, both generally and also in discussions of issues that directly and disproportionately impact them.
The authors of the report published in the Post on March 13 found that of the 89 terror attacks identified by the Global Terrorism Database between 2011 and 2015 in the U.S., 12.4 percent were committed by Muslims and 88 percent by non-Muslims, but that attacks by Muslims received 44 percent of news coverage about terror attacks. The disparity was even more extreme in cases where the attacker was a foreign-born Muslim. Even after they controlled for a “host of factors,” attacks by Muslims perpetrators received an average of 4 ½ times more coverage. “In other words,” the researchers wrote, “whether intentional or not, U.S. media outlets disproportionately emphasize the smaller number of terrorist attacks by Muslims — leading Americans to have an exaggerated sense of that threat.” From the March 13 report:
Of the 89 attacks, 24 did not receive any media coverage from the sources we examined. The small proportion of attacks that were by Muslims — remember, only 12 percent — received 44 percent of the news coverage. In only 5 percent of all the terrorist attacks, the perpetrator was both Muslim and foreign-born — but those four attacks got 32 percent of all the media coverage.
In real numbers, the average attack with a Muslim perpetrator is covered in 90.8 articles. Attacks with a Muslim, foreign-born perpetrator are covered in 192.8 articles on average. Compare this with other attacks, which received an average of 18.1 articles.
But even controlling for [a host of factors], attacks by a Muslim perpetrator get, on average, about 4½ times more coverage. In other words, whether intentional or not, U.S. media outlets disproportionately emphasize the smaller number of terrorist attacks by Muslims — leading Americans to have an exaggerated sense of that threat.
Our own research, and that of our colleagues, shows that people are more likely to consider an attack to be terrorism when the perpetrator is Muslim. That’s true, even though the chance of an American being killed by an foreign-born terrorist, measured over the past 40 years, is 1 in 3.6 million each year, as a recent Cato Institute report noted.
But since the news media focus so disproportionately on attacks by Muslims, particularly foreign-born Muslims, it’s no wonder that so many Americans think that these groups make our country less secure.