Hypothetical question: a man, motivated by violent ideology, is charged with plotting to blow up a building (in a city outside of your market) and kill people — do you run this story and what does your coverage look like?
Turns out the answer may lie more in the ethnic and religious background of the man than in anything else about the case. The Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) released a report revealing a glaring double standard in the news coverage of ideologically motivated violence. This report compared legal and media treatment of offenders “perceived to be Muslim...acting in the name of Islam,” dubbed as Category A, and offenders “who are not perceived to be Muslim,” dubbed Category B. Even when the crimes were similar, news coverage of Category A was as much as seven and a half times more than that of Category B.
ISPU looked only at coverage by The New York Times and The Washington Post. While this narrow definition of media is problematic — most glaring is the implicit disregard for local news coverage — the report’s findings showcase very important issues for journalists to consider when covering these cases; whether it’s a 20-second voiceover or a 5,000 word story.
"News organizations, willingly or unwillingly, guide the national discourse. How we present and frame issues directly influences how people think and talk about them. If we’re doing it wrong, there can be widespread negative consequences."
Ideologically motivated violence is a serious public safety and national security concern. And, most people are paying attention to this issue. News organizations, willingly or unwillingly, guide the national discourse. How we present and frame issues directly influences how people think and talk about them. If we’re doing it wrong, there can be widespread negative consequences. The consequences for poor coverage could include entire communities having to pay for the crimes of a few individuals, bad public policy reinforcing false narratives and misallocation of public safety resources. As journalists, we’re supposed to do no harm, but right now that’s not always the case.
Here are some actionable lessons all journalists should remember when covering extremist attacks or plots:
Context is Important: ISPU found most coverage of suspects with right-wing extremist or white supremacist ideologies painted them as lone wolves, a threat that is rare and uncommon. Offenders who appeared to act in the name of Islam were treated quite the opposite. However, many experts agree that white supremacists and right-wing extremists pose the most serious threat to Americans. This includes the FBI and DHS, which released a bulletin highlighting this danger. Any coverage of these extremists needs to include the context of this growing national threat. All it takes is one sentence.
The Details Matter: Of the ideologically motivated violence ISPU reviewed, law enforcement provided weapons, including dummy explosives, to two-thirds of cases involving Category A offenders while 80% of Category B offenders cases got weapons on their own. Law enforcement rarely discusses their active role in these plots.
We must ask law enforcement about their active involvement in these plots, or lack of, and mention it in all coverage. These details are crucial in deducing which people pose the greatest actual threat.
Define Terror: Most newsrooms don’t have a standard operating procedure to determine whether to call something terrorism or someone a terrorist. This is apparent when suspects are labeled very differently in similar situations. ISPU’s study found that a large majority of coverage of Category A offenders used terror/terrorism/terrorist. The terms were used significantly less for Category B cases, even when their crimes were similar.
Often journalists defer to law enforcement about whether something is terrorism. While terrorism has a legal definition, it is also a noun and an adjective independent of any legal definition. Rarely do news organizations allow authorities to dictate how we cover a story and terrorism should be no exception. Every newsroom needs to have a discussion on whether and when to use the terms terror/terrorism/terrorist. The standards should be same no matter what the suspect’s extremist views. UNESCO’s Terrorism and the Media: A Handbook for Journalists, the AP Stylebook and Reuter’s Handbook of Journalism are all great guides for these discussions.
Is Race/Ethnicity/Religion/National Origin Relevant?: Similarly, newsrooms need to discuss when a suspect/offender’s race, ethnicity, religion or national origin are relevant. Using the descriptors when they’re not relevant or without explaining their relevance perpetuates harmful stereotypes. It also gets in the way of truly understanding a motive. When suspects fall into Category A, it is often assumed they did it because they believe in a violent Islam. These assumptions can be wrong. They also don’t allow for discussions on how mental illness and other systemic problems can lead to Islamist extremism.
Race, ethnicity, religion and national origin can be relevant. However, just because authorities mention them doesn’t mean they’re relevant. Journalists have to have a thoughtful discussion about the relevance before including these details in their stories.
Question Authority: ISPU found prosecutors sought three times the sentence length for Category A offenders than Category B offenders; the former received sentences four times longer than the latter. This is because the charges brought against Category A offenders tend to be harsher than those against Category B offenders, even for similar crimes.
Journalists covering ideologically motivated violence must question prosecutors and investigators over why they are or are not calling something terrorism. We must also ask why they’ve chosen to charge a suspect with particular crimes and what evidence they have for them. This is how we help the public truly understand these stories. We can’t just be stenographers writing up verbatim what law enforcement told us. That’s just the “what” of the story, we have to make sure we also provide the “why”.
A Press Release is a Press Release: Just like private companies, law enforcement uses press releases to highlight what they want and laud their work. As journalists, we can’t simply take press releases at face value. We should be reading between the lines, asking questions and verifying the details. This sounds basic, but this isn’t happening as often as it should in cases of ideologically motivated violence.
ISPU’s report found the Justice Department sent out six times more press releases for Category A offenders than Category B offenders. This disparity led to disparities in news coverage. Additionally, the Category A press releases highlighted ideology more often and more prominently than Category B press releases despite the fact it was a factor in both cases.
Examine Why You’re Covering or Not Covering a Particular Story: The most glaring takeaway from ISPU’s report is the long list of violent plots by Category B offenders that were thwarted but got zero news coverage. Meanwhile, similar plots by Category A offenders were covered. While the report doesn’t provide an explanation for why this is, it’s easy to see that Category A offenders fulfilled a certain narrative why Category B offenders didn’t.
As journalists, it is incumbent on us to take a step back and examine what we’re covering, what we’re not covering and why. We need to make sure we’re not blowing certain stories out of proportion because they fit a narrative and ignoring others because they don’t.
Most of ISPU’s findings are a good reminder of the basic things journalists can do to improve our coverage of ideologically motivated violence. This violence will most likely be a problem for decades. While the problem will persist, we must make sure we don’t keep perpetuating problematic reporting of it.
By Waliya Lari, AAJA Muslim American Task Force, Director of Partnerships
Photo from https://www.ispu.org/