Holly Jennings discusses the dangerous biases behind the media’s coverage of terrorist attacks
Despite deaths by terrorism falling by 44% since 2014, media coverage of terrorist attacks has been at an all time high. In today’s climate it feels like there is a new shooting to be reported everyday, but perhaps this is due to an increase in coverage of Western terrorism. The Global Terrorism Index (GTI) report of 2018 finds that the UK and the USA are both in the top 30 countries affected by terrorism. Iraq remains the leader with a horrifying total of 4,721 deaths from terrorism in 2017 alone. Iraq, and many other Eastern countries, have been the victims of countless terror attacks for years with very little Western coverage. One of the most controversial aspects of the media’s interaction with terrorism is its coverage of the perpetrators of these attacks. Most notably, Western media has a bad habit of wearing rose-tinted glasses when reporting on white terrorists.
March 2019 saw far too many overwhelming attacks on the Western world. Fifteen days into March, one of the largest terrorist attacks of the year occurred, leaving 50 dead and 50 injured across two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. The attack was orchestrated by a 28-year-old Australian man, an active member of white supremacist groups and alt-right movements.
The November 2015 attacks in Paris killed 130 people. The terrorist attack was carried out by 11 men who split into three groups. The so called Islamic State claimed responsibility for the attacks, declaring it a response to the bombings in Syria and Iraq from France.
Whilst the motive of these two attacks are at a contrast, the nature of them is similar; both of these attacks stemmed from the worship of an intense collection of beliefs. Both of these attacks killed many people and harmed many more, and the trauma felt by the victims, and the victims’ family and friends is utterly heartbreaking. Despite both attacks sharing a similar extremist nature, the treatment of the perpetrators in the media was inconsistent. The Mirror reported on both attacks: the newspaper accused the Paris murderers of committing an act of “Revenge for Jihadi John”, whilst calling the Christchurch killer an “Angelic boy who grew into an evil far-right killer”. The former is printed on a picture of several body bags, with an icon of Jihadi John yielding a knife as an overlay. The latter is presented with the background of the murderer as a young boy held by his dad. The stark contrast between the presentation of these two attacks is far from unorthodox in the media.
If the assailant hails from a Middle-Eastern or African descent, or if they are not as white as the media would like them to be, a different vocabulary is used to paint the picture for the general public. Headlines covering non-white terrorists are infused with violent and hateful terminology, however white terrorists are sheltered by the media as they are protected through a specific lexicon. Within the media’s biased narrative, the white terrorist does not exist: the word “terrorist” is rarely used in conjunction with the Christchurch attack, or any other white perpetrator’s attack. Instead, the white terrorist is labelled “mentally ill” or a “troubled soul”. The white terrorist is handled with confusion rather than hatred; how has our culture wronged this young man to create a vicious killer? Initially, the labelling seems harmless but the reality is that it induces sympathy for a murderer. Other newspapers abuse this lexicon, with The Sun describing the Christchurch attacker as a “smiling tot” and a “well-mannered young man”. Rather than challenging the perpetrator’s Islamophobic and racist ideologies, the media challenges how society has failed the mentally-ill lone wolf.
In addition, it is atypical for a white terrorist attack to have such high profile coverage in the first place. According to research from the University of Alabama, terrorist attacks committed by a non-Muslim attacker received 15 headlines, whilst terrorist attacks committed by a Muslim attacker received 105 headlines. This means if the perpetrator of a terrorist attack is Muslim, the attack receives 357% more media attention than an incident carried out by a non-Muslim terrorist. The heavy emphasis on the Muslim attacker fuels prejudice and xenophobia against the religion which can result in more attacks like Christchurch. Additionally, it can create false perceptions on the frequency of these attacks. The unregulated coverage suggests which persons or groups should be feared the most based on their religion or race.
In February, senior politicians called out the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) in an attempt to regulate the media’s racism and Islamophobia. A total of 26 MPs have signed the open letter to the organisation as well as a collection of civil society groups, academics and individual campaigners. The letter read: “Racist and faith-based attacks against communities are so common in parts of the press that they have become a dangerous normality.” IPSO were also accused of “turning a blind eye to the continuing incitement of hatred”. Sir Alan Moses, Chairman of IPSO, responded to the open letter: “IPSO rejects the accusation that it condones religious and race-based hate or in any way approves of offensive attacks on groups on the grounds of their beliefs or identity.” He continued: “Our decisions on discrimination and accuracy make it clear that a finding that there has been no breach of the Editors’ Code does not in any way imply that IPSO approves of what has been written.” Moses concluded his letter by adding: “The real issue, with which the letter fails to grapple, is how to strike a balance between the freedom of a journalist or newspaper to offend a group while protecting individuals.”
Nevertheless, the threat of the white terrorist is on the rise with “a significant increase in far-right terrorist activity, particularly in the last two years” as stated by Tom Morgan, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Economics and Peace. But the true danger that white terrorists pose will continue to be overlooked until the media confronts the real danger that they pose to society.