It was perhaps ironic that the Austin serial bomber blew himself up. But when does a ‘serial bomber’ become a terrorist? When is a mass murderer reported as a terrorist? In the media reporting at least, it depends on who the culprit is, rather than the act itself. More specifically, it depends on whether the culprit is a Muslim or not.
Even a cursory review of the reporting makes the media bias rather clear, as we will see in the following paragraphs.
Mark Anthony Conditt, the ‘Austin serial bomber’ blew himself up yesterday as the authorities zeroed in on him. This is how CNN reported the news. The headline read:
The Austin serial bomber killed himself when he detonated one of his bombs early Wednesday. He was responsible for six other devices, five of which detonated, killing two people and injuring five others.
The New York Times headlines read:
The NY Times story further stated:
In a matter of hours, Mr. Conditt’s bombing spree, as well as his life, would be over. As SWAT officers closed in, Mr. Conditt — a 23-year-old man from the Austin suburbs with no criminal record…
How many times have you seen the reports of “Mr. Dzhokhar Tsarnaev” (after Boston marathon attack)?
The USA Today’s headline:
And the NBC News:
I can go on and on but you got the picture.
No mention of the word terrorism in reference to the five bombings he is believed to have committed. No mention that Conditt was in fact a terrorist. I wonder how the media would have reported if his name was Kareem Omar.
Many have pointed out that the victims were blacks, at least on the first two bombings and therefore the bombings were racially motivated. That may be true. But it is still terrorism, likely motivated by racism.
Definition of terrorism
Is it not an act of terrorism? Just ask the citizens of Austin. They would tell you they were terrified.
Ok, I know the legal definition of terrorism requires a motive. The U.N. general assembly defined it as follows in 1994.
Criminal acts intended or calculated to provoke a state of terror in the general public, a group of persons or particular persons for political purposes are in any circumstance unjustifiable whatever the considerations of a political, philosophical, ideological, racial, ethnic, religious or any other nature that may be invoked to justify them.
- The FBI defines domestic terrorism as “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial or environmental nature.”
- Title 22 of the U.S. Code defines terrorism as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against non-combatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.”
And sure we don’t know Conditt’s motives. But does the media await for the motives to be known when the culprit “looks Muslim”, or has a Muslim-sounding name?
Not only is the act called terrorism, but if the culprit is a Muslim, these acts receive much more attention in the media.
The good news is that folks have started to realize the apparent bias.
As reported by Independent, a well-respected UK news outlet, on July 3, 2017 published the study conducted by Erin Kearns and colleagues from Georgia State university, with the following headline:
Analysis of coverage of all terrorist attacks in the US between 2011 and 2015 found there was a 449 per cent increase in media attention when the perpetrator was Muslim.
The authors said the finding suggests the media is making people disproportionately fearful of Muslim terrorists.
They found that the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing, which was carried out by two Muslim attackers and killed three people, received almost 20 per cent of all coverage relating to US terror attacks in the five-year period.
In contrast, reporting of a 2012 massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin that left six people dead and was carried out by Wade Michael Page – a white man, constituted just 3.8 per cent of coverage.
A mass shooting by Dylann Roof, who is also white, at an African-American church in Charleston, South Carolina, killed nine people but received only 7.4 per cent of media coverage, while a 2014 attack by Frazier Glenn Miller on a Kansas synagogue left three dead but accounted for just 3.3 per cent of reports.
After the Las Vegas “massacre”, the Poynter published this piece on October 2, 2017 with the following headline.
‘Lone wolf’ or ‘terrorist’? How bias can shape news coverage
Another decision: describing the attack that authorities say was committed by Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white man, as a “mass shooting” rather than “domestic terrorism.” When a Muslim person mows down innocent victims and terrorizes a community, media and authorities are quick to declare it terrorism; when a white, non-Muslim attacker does the same, he is usually described as a disturbed loner in a freak incident. In both cases, journalists arrive at these conclusions early in the news cycle when information is incomplete. (Official statistics show far more terrorism in the U.S. is committed by white men than by Muslims).
What’s the impact? Why do we/should we care?
First of all this is about fair and objective reporting.
Secondly, there is a psychological impact with immense implications for bias, negative perceptions, hatred and even bigotry.
Muniba Saleem, a social psychologist from university of Michigan conducted a study in April 2017, showing videos of Muslims to three different groups. One showed them in a negative light including clips of them committing acts of terrorism; the other showed them in positive light, doing humanitarian work, while the third group saw neutral clips.
The three groups were asked various questions following the videos. One question was if they would support public policies against the Muslims.
The researchers discovered that after participants watched the negative news clips, they supported all kinds of unconstitutional policies targeting Muslim Americans.
We should be fair and just and call it what it is- regardless of the color, religion, ethnicity or race of the victims OR the perpetrators.
O you who believe! be maintainers of justice, bearers of witness of God’s sake, though it may be against your own selves or (your) parents or near relatives; if he be rich or poor, God is nearer to them both in compassion; therefore do not follow (your) low desires, lest you deviate; and if you swerve or turn aside, then surely God is aware of what you do. The Qur’an 4:135
You see, negative portrayals lead to negative perceptions which leads to negative opinion and in worse case scenarios hatred, and in some cases, violence.
This may not be ‘fake news’ or overt Islamophobia, but it certainly qualifies for biased and perhaps dishonest reporting, don’t you think?