Media Bias And Terrorism Coverage

Police gather after gunmen attacked the Holey Artisan restaurant and took hostages early on Saturday, in Dhaka, Bangladesh in
Police gather after gunmen attacked the Holey Artisan restaurant and took hostages early on Saturday, in Dhaka, Bangladesh in this still frame taken from live video July 2, 2016.

What’s in a word? More precisely, what’s in three words: “radical Islamic terrorist.”

These words seem to be imbued with a strange power. By not uttering them, according to various Republicans, President Obama is losing the war on terrorism. Obama, on his part, has declined to use the three words together, insisting that the United States can’t be perceived as at war with the religion of Islam.

And there’s little the media loves more than a war of words – even if this squabble over semantics has, in fact, very little to do with parsing out the reasons for the horrific attack on an Orlando gay club, which left 49 people dead. The shooter, Omar Mateen, did pledge himself to ISIS, but other aspects of his life point to a troubled mind and history of violence.

Repeating the words “radical Islamic terrorist,” pundits note, won’t bring back the dead. It’s not a magical chant that will freeze jihadi in their tracks. And yet the words do have a bizarre power to turn what should be a reasonable debate over gun control, domestic surveillance and effective law enforcement (Mateen had been questioned by the FBI) into fisticuffs over word play.

By playing up this debate, the media is, however, setting itself up for more attacks on perceived bias – bias that depend on the very words that a journalist or columnist or anchor uses or the issues that newspapers or networks choose to focus upon.

Consider: Why are some events deemed important enough for front pages of newspapers (or the top position on an online news sites) and other events are on page 23 or reached only by scrolling deep down into a web page? Certainly both events are “reported” – the information is there if you want to find it – and yet given readers’ busy lives and the increasing tendency to skim headlines, there’s a real sense that one event is far more important and vital than the other and thus can be ignored.  Whether this is actual “bias” or a matter of logistics is beside the point – the news/information producer is making a decision on what is important to know.

In a democracy, where we need an educated public, this can raise some troubling issues. (Just consider that the NCAA basketball news may be covered five times more than the issue of our national debt, which arguably the debt has more of a real impact on our lives.) Where this issue of priority and/or bias becomes increasingly critical is in the coverage of acts of terrorism, which rightly concern Americans and will likely influence their choice of president.

The attack in Orlando has been 24/7, world-wide news – even as it’s unclear whether this was an act of terrorism, a hate crime or  (more likely) a mix of both. But what about attacks in other parts of the world? Various media pundits have sounded an alarm that major news outlets focused on terrorist attacks in Western Europe, such as the Nov. 13 attacks in Paris and the March 22 attacks in Brussels, with 24/7, wall-to-wall coverage while giving scant attention to equally deadly and destructive terrorism attacks in Turkey, Lebanon and Africa.

Just after the Brussels attack, Nidhi Prakash, writing on Fusion, bluntly asked, “Why is the American media mostly ignoring two other terror attacks that happened this month?” She argued that two recent attacks in Turkey as well as a brutal attack by Boko Haram in Nigeria, that killed at least 65 people, did not get the extensive coverage given to Brussels.

While some commentators see ethnic bias or a double standard about the value of human life for Western Europeans versus non-Europeans, I tend to see a matter of proximity at work – Paris and Brussels appear closer and more like American cities like New York, giving American readers the visceral sense that “if it could happen there, it could happen here.” Sadly, the Paris attacks were both dramatic and unusual – you don’t get news like that out of Paris every day unlike, perhaps, the horrors that seem to unfold daily in places like Syria.

As The Guardian noted, “Ideally we should care about all deaths equally, but it’s human nature that we do not. Not out of some crass disregard for the lives of others, but the simple limitations of what we can care about, its proximity to home, and how it grabs our attention.” Unfortunately, I think violent events in war-torn areas become so commonplace that in an odd way it’s not news anymore – just another day of horrible things. The shock disappears.

Having said that, I must add that if there were more detailed coverage of what happens on a daily basis in such places, we would get a more complete picture and make us more aware of what has happened. It would rattle our complacency. Over time, we lose a sense of perspective. Many Americans remember the kidnapping of nearly 300 girls in Nigeria by extremists in 2014 but in a random poll, it’s likely people would not recall if the girls have been released or are still in captivity. (Most of the girls have not been returned.)

Even in the United States, coverage of the Orlando shooting quickly turned into a partisan free for all. Reporters faced with making sense of the events are subject to cries of bias by even bringing up Australia’s successful gun control efforts or by failing to use the words “radical Islamic terrorist.”

Ultimately, with all the information available on the Internet, all good consumers of news have to be proactive in seeking out various sources of information, not just complain about media bias. The media can be an easy target – no question about that.  We have to look beyond the headlines. We have to do a good job of taking the time and effort to search a little more thoroughly, to pick up both sides of an issue to make informed choices.

The media have a responsibility to report the news, but it’s incumbent on us to dig a little deeper and explore to get the whole picture.

Neal Hartman is a Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management.