The problem with 'terrorism' coverage isn't quantity, but quality

The problem with 'terrorism' coverage isn't quantity, but quality
Comment: Donald Trump has complained the media is unwilling to report on terrorism, but it is precisely the way in which they've reported that has driven isolation, writes Usaid Siddiqui.
6 min read
21 Feb, 2017
There is plenty of coverage of attacks, but the focus is rarely helpful [AFP]

In another of the laundry list of falsehoods in which President Donald Trump seems to land himself every day, his White House last week released a list of 78 "terrorist incidences" that it alleged the media failed to report, or had under-reported.

Included on the list were the San Bernardino attacks and the Paris killings, both of which took place in 2015 during Trump's election campaign - and both of which received extensive international coverage.

The press release came out hours after Trump had claimed that the "very, very dishonest press" was unwilling to report on violent acts committed by "radical Islamic terrorists".

Trump's comments, made in relation to his illegal ban on entry to the US for citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, unsurprisingly did not include any attacks committed by non-Muslims, domestically or abroad.

Trump's assertions were immediately rebuked by much of the media, which rightfully criticised his baseless allegations of under-reporting. The American corporate media's insatiable appetite for sensationalism and ratings goes to show just how willing to cover such events media outlets really are.

It was never that the mainstream media under-reported on terrorism committed by Muslim extremists, but how it reported those incidents. And with much of the anti-Muslim sentiment that we see on full display under Trump, the mainstream media has been far from being an innocent bystander.

Making 'terrorism' synonymous with Islam

A day after the attacks in Paris, CNN hosts John Vause and Isha Sesay badgered French Muslim activist Yasser Louati for the entirety of his presence on their show over why "his community" did not do more to stop the attacks.

"Why is it that no-one within the Muslim community there in France knew what these guys were up to?" Vause asked Louati. "Surely someone beyond the seven guys... would have to have known something and that was probably within the Muslim community but yet no one said anything."

This type of willful ignorance is a form of treatment many Muslims face in the mainstream media. It's an age-old habit to associate Islam and Muslims with the actions of a handful of violent extremists, helping to prime many viewers to see Muslims as uniquely more violent than others.

A pattern of media coverage of terrorism that feeds Orientalism and a culture of fear of Islam, while heightening the United States as a good Christian nation

In a study by Luther College Professor Kim Powell, an analysis of 11 "terrorist" events from 2001 to 2010 - as identified by the author - showed the severely problematic coverage of how Muslims were portrayed in mainstream news.

It is "a pattern of media coverage of terrorism that feeds Orientalism and a culture of fear of Islam, while heightening the United States as a good Christian nation", writes Powell.

According to Powell, non-Muslims found to be perpetrators were portrayed largely as "mentally unstable", their acts committed by a "lone wolf". If the attack was committed by a Muslim, however, links to international organisations such as al-Qaeda were quickly made, while portraying the act as "being war of Islam on the United States, thus intensifying the culture of fear in the United States - a fear of terrorism and more specifically of Muslims and Islam".

Other media studies have come to similar conclusions, demonstrating a frequent association of terrorism with Islam and Muslims in mainstream press.

MediaTenor, a media research institute, found that between 2007 and 2013, coverage of Muslims had become increasingly negative. ABC, NBC and CBS, perceived by many as liberal outlets, had a combined negative tone towards American Muslims that only got worse over those six years: -50 percent in 2007 dropping to a staggering -80 percent in 2013.

Their study found US cable news coverage of Muslims and Islam was largely shaped by international conflicts, terrorism and civil unrest, with groups such as al-Qaeda taking top spot as the most Muslim/Islam-related topic on cable news. Moreover, while negative stories about Muslims accounted for more than 70 percent of coverage, positive stories about Muslims was in the single digits.


While depressing, none these findings are surprising.

Media headlines and tickers are often awash with anecdotes that frame Islam as providing cover to the nihilistic violence of groups such as al-Qaeda and the Islamic State group; organisations that have been responsible for far more Muslim deaths than non-Muslim ones.

Adding to the exasperation of Muslims always having to repeatedly defend their faith as peaceful, the US media routinely curtails the voices of Muslims to add nuance and testimony to a debate that is deleteriously framed largely around their community.

On the recent debate surrounding Trump's recent executive order to ban entry from seven Muslim-majority countries that allegedly "sponsor terrorism", Muslims have been kept largely absent from the discourse.

A Media Matters study showed that, from January 30 to February 3, 2017, there of just 14 Muslims out of a total of 176 guests invited to speak on the topic across the three major broadcast networks.

In light of this reality, Khaled Beydoun of Barry University wrote for Al-Jazeera this week that "the exclusion of Muslim voices seems to be heightening at a moment when regular inclusion of Muslim voices has never been more important".

Decontextualising terrorism

For years, religion experts and scholars have theorised and regurgitated that theology has little to do with people's motivation to commit violence; instead, political, social and economic factors rank highly.

In arguably the most devastating war of the past 25 years, numerous reports show that the civil war in Syria has forced the hands of many to bear arms. A study published by a non-profit and peace advocacy group, International Alert, found that it was the personal loss of homes and family that had influenced several militants to resort to violence as a means for revenge and retribution.

People don't care, it's just about the money

Many others were found to be choosing between armed groups, not based on ideology, but by which group paid better.

As one participant said, "people don't care, it's just about the money".

Georgetown Professor John Esposito, a prominent expert on Islam and the Muslim world writes:

"Political conditions in Syria and Iraq, ethnic-religious/sectarian divisions in the region, and the failures of the US and international community contributed to [IS'] stunning if barbaric success. Bashar al-Assad's brutal military response to the 'threat' of the Arab uprisings... paved the way for outside jihadist groups and heightened Sunni-Shia sectarian warfare."

Britain's MI5 spy agency, which has its own problematic practices when it comes to surveilling British Muslims for extremist behaviour, wrote a report in 2008, saying that it was significantly difficult to profile a terrorist and that most studied were "demographically unremarkable". In fact most were found not to be specially practicing, and lacked any meaningful understanding of Islam.

Of course such findings that go beyond the sensationalist rhetoric of "holy wars" and "clashes of civilisations" hardly make for a clickbait headline or get trending on social media. Yet ignoring the complexity of the terrorism phenomenon and the nuance it deserves will has helped heap credibility on the most Islamophobic and war-mongering forces.

In a time when the White House is unapologetically anti-Islam, US media organisations must recognise their own culpability in creating the hostile environment in which Muslims find themselves today; while doing more to elevate grassroots understanding of the debilitating violence facing the Muslim world.

Usaid Siddiqui is a freelance Canadian writer. He has written for PolicyMic, Aslan Media, Al Jazeera America and Mondoweiss on current affairs. Follow him on Twitter: @UsaidMuneeb16

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.