We need more equal coverage in the media
Today, it seems that acts of violence are so commonplace in our lives that we have almost become accustomed to them. Acts of terror, specifically, have become such typical parts of our lives that — while they still raise questions of “why?”, “how?”, and “when will this end?” — they are now unsurprising stories on our news broadcasts and Twitter feeds. But what about how these events are covered? How has media coverage impacted what we see, what we know, and how we perceive what has happened?
In March 2018, Austin, TX was terrorized by suspected bomber Mark Conditt who killed himself in the seventh and final bombing on March 21. Coverage of these attacks has been widespread in the media from The New York Times to The Atlantic. However, the amount of coverage has been nowhere near that of the bombings in Paris, Brussels, the Boston Marathon, or the shooting in the Orlando nightclub, Pulse. The language and methods used to cover the bombings and Conditt himself have also been markedly different than others. Discussion about how coverage differs has also been ignited by the fact that the two victims of the bombings are African Americans.
Conditt has been described as a white Christian, a “nerdy” man from a “godly family.” While all these terms may be accurate, a New York Times tweet highlighted these facts — a distinct difference from how the media covers acts of terror by Muslims or victims of color.
According to a 2017 study from Georgia State University, an attack by a Muslim perpetrator receives four and a half times more coverage than an attack by a non-Muslim perpetrator. The study analyzed the coverage of 89 attacks and found that, while only 12 percent of the attacks were by Muslims, those attacks by Muslims received 44 percent of the total coverage of all 89 attacks. Coverage was also much more widespread if the perpetrator was Muslim and foreign-born.
After the Boston Marathon bombing on April 13, 2013, The New York Post published its April 18 issue with an image of two young men with the large headline “Bag Men,” claiming they were the perpetrators of the bombing ostensibly because of their outward appearance. The real bombers, brothers Dzhokhar Tsarnaev and Tamerlan Tsarnaev, were discovered, and the two men falsely accused eventually settled a defamation suit with the paper.
Rarely does anyone call a white perpetrator a terrorist. Since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, the terms “terrorist” and “terrorism” have become part of American lexicon, but are associated with Muslims. The fact that labeling an otherwise innocent Muslim a terrorist is easier than rightfully calling a white person a terrorist speaks volumes about the stereotypes and views America has about Muslims.
This racist coverage also extends to shooters and African Americans. White shooters are considered lone wolves, called mentally ill and given layered backstories, in an attempt to understand and humanize them. While these profiles may have some validity by seeking to understand the psychology of these men, this sympathy is not given to Muslim or black shooters. They are immediately called terrorists and thugs, indicted on malicious intent rather than outside forces out of their control.
Even black victims receive more negative coverage than white shooters. Young teenage African Americans victims are called men and given part of the blame. The most widely circulated photo of Trayvon Martin is black and white, of him looking blankly at the camera in a white hoodie. What if instead of this image we saw another photograph of Martin in a red Hollister t-shirt and smiling? Would that have altered our perception of him? We’ll never know.
Three months after the Boston Marathon bombing, bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, the brother who survived and stood trial, was on the cover of Rolling Stone. The headline called him the bomber and a monster, but the photograph itself was more positive — it was well lit and relatively flattering, with Tsarnaev’s hair flowing in curling tresses. While Tsarnaev is Muslim, he is of Chechen descent — the original Caucasians. The question of whether he was white or not was debated as his trial began. The simple fact that he was featured on the cover of a prestigious cultural magazine like a celebrity has enough implications of slanted coverage.
After the shooting of nine African Americans in a Charleston, SC church in June 2015, The Washington Post made the argument about the inequality of how the media covers mass violence, pointing out the coverage of shooter Dylann Roof. However, almost three years later, media coverage has not changed. In a press conference after Austin bomber Conditt’s death, the Austin Police Chief called him a “challenged young man.” Only eight days later, after extensive criticism, did the police chief call Conditt a domestic terrorist.
This needs to change. The way the media covers perpetrators of mass violence is directly connected to how we view them as a society. These immediate racist connections we make by equating Muslims to terrorists and black people to criminals are ingrained in our minds. The idea that America is past racism is not a moot point. It remains an immutable part of our society. The media directly impacts how we think — it’s how we get our news, how we learn about what’s going on in the world. The information we receive influences how we perceive the world. In order to become a more equal society, we must move towards more equal media coverage of atrocious attacks.