Guest Commentary

Guest commentary: Terrorism coverage in media reflects bias, distorts reality

On May 31 a bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan killed 90 and wounded 400.
On May 31 a bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan killed 90 and wounded 400. TNS

When it comes to biased media, one automatically thinks of left-right political bias, of Sean Hannity versus Media Matters, for example. But there’s another kind of bias that infects our news media — the bias that minimizes victims of terrorism who don’t live in North America or Europe.

By watching the news, one might think that most terror victims were Christians living in the U.S. or Europe. However, Muslim terrorists have claimed many more Muslim victims than any other group over the past 15 years. “I understand why the media cover terrorism in the West so closely, and I understand why people who follow these events become so frightened, but objectively speaking the threat of terrorism is not very great,” Richard Bulliet, a professor emeritus of history at Columbia University told broadcaster Voice of America.

In my book “Peace Journalism Principles and Practices,” I cite a 2011 report by the U.S. government’s National Counterterrorism Center that said, “In cases where the religious affiliation of terrorism casualties could be determined, Muslims suffered between 82 and 97 percent of terrorism-related fatalities over the past five years.”

Also, a Washington Post analysis of all terrorist attacks from the beginning of 2015 through the summer of 2016 shows that the Middle East, Africa and Asia have seen “nearly 50 times more deaths from terrorism than Europe and the Americas.”

Two recent examples demonstrate how the volume and tone of terrorism coverage highlight suffering in the West and marginalize victims from elsewhere. The May 22 attack in Manchester, England, killed 23 and injured 116. In the two days following the attack, a LexisNexis search of newspaper articles with the keyword “Manchester” maxed out at 1,000 hits per day, meaning that there were at least 2,000 newspaper stories about Manchester on May 23-24.

By contrast, on May 31 a bomb in Kabul, Afghanistan, killed 90 and wounded 400. A LexisNexis search of newspaper articles with the keyword “Kabul” got 333 hits on June 1, and 212 hits on June 2, only a fraction of the coverage about the Manchester attack.

The tone of coverage between the attacks was also different. For Manchester, there were numerous accounts giving details about the victims and their families and about those searching for loved ones. Kabul coverage was almost antiseptic in many respects. A cursory glance of the first 20 LexisNexis search hits revealed only one story — “Afghans Mourn” by the Associated Press — with a strong human interest angle. Other observers detected the same pattern.

This distorted coverage leads to undue fear in the West about becoming a terrorist victim, the risk of which is actually about 0.000003 percent, according to “Peace Journalism Principles and Practices.” This exaggeration empowers those who seek to capitalize on the war on terror for their own gain.

This distorted coverage also dehumanizes those outside the West who are most often victimized by terrorists, leading to indifference about these victims’ plight and fueling anti-terrorism policies that often don’t reflect reality.

Until media coverage of terrorism becomes less hysterical and more proportional, there’s little hope that our society’s discourse about terrorism can become more nuanced and sophisticated.

Communications professor Steven Youngblood is director of the Center for Global Peace Journalism at Park University in Parkville.