By Dr. Ken Broda-Bahm:
On June 5th, three men used a van and knives to conduct an attack on pedestrians near the London Bridge and Borough Market. Just one week later, another man used a van in an attack on people leaving a mosque near Finsbury Park. Are we likely to frame both events evenly as "terrorism," and to give them the same kind and degree of attention? According to some recent research, the answer is "probably not." When terrorism is perpetrated by Muslims, as in the London Bridge attack, then we more easily define it as "terrorism," and give it a greater focus. When terrorism is perpetrated by a member of the majority, as in the Finsbury Park attack, then we are less able to characterize it, and more likely to see it as the act of a psychologically-disturbed loner. That is the conclusion of a recent study (Kearns, Betus & Lemieux, 2017) by Georgia State University researchers, "Why Do Some Terrorist Attacks Receive More Media Attention Than Others?"
Shankar Vedantam, NPR's social science correspondent, discussed the study on a recent Morning Edition segment. Looking at American coverage in mainstream print sources and CNN.com, the study found that people are more likely to label it "terrorism," and to give it four and a half times the amount of coverage, if the attacker is of the Muslim faith. A white person, they note, would have to kill an average of seven more people to receive the same coverage as the Muslim attacker. The researchers also conducted an experiment where they described an attack and held the details constant while varying only the identity of the attacker. "What we found," according to Georgia State University criminologist Erin Kearns, "is that when the perpetrator was Muslim, people were much more likely to consider it to be terrorism than when the perpetrator was not Muslim. In those cases, people are more likely to say that perhaps it's a hate crime or not be sure how to classify it." That ambiguity and selectivity applies not just to terrorism and anti-muslim bias, it also reflects a more general tendency to amplify those facts that fit the frame and to minimize and discard the facts that don't.