Study: Media quicker to label Muslims than whites as terrorists


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Between 2008 and 2012, about 6 percent of domestic terrorism suspects were Muslim, or about 1 in 17, according to FBI reports.

But in that same period, about 81 percent of the domestic terrorists described on national cable and network television news programs were Muslim, according to a study led by University of Illinois communication professor Travis Dixon.

Terrorism on American soil is much more likely to be committed by white males with extremist views, a fact driven home in last week's church shooting that killed nine people in Charleston, S.C., Dixon said Monday.

But some people in the news industry still resisted calling it a terrorist attack, he said.

"Even the news agencies that did discuss it as a terrorist act posed it as a question," he said.

It was a terrorist attack by definition, Dixon said: "Someone who kills civilians for political goals. That's clearly what emerged here, without a doubt."

A Facebook page with the name of the suspect, Dylann Storm Roof, showed him wearing a jacket with flags from apartheid-era South Africa and the former white-ruled Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe. Friends told reporters that Roof had said "blacks were taking over the world" and he wanted to start a civil war. News accounts said he declared his hatred for black people before opening fire. And a reported manifesto that surfaced online is full of bigoted rants against black people and other minorities.

Some news accounts and commentators described it as an assault against Christians "because he walked into a church and killed Christians," Dixon said. "That's not why he killed them. He killed them because of his white supremacist ideology."

Some media outlets used a more generalized "hate" narrative, which was part of the story but not the whole story, he said.

The media seem to reserve the word "terrorist" for extremist Islamic groups, Dixon said. That's odd, he said, given high-profile terrorist attacks by anti-government white males in recent decades — the bombing in Oklahoma City by anti-government militia member Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols, which killed 168 people; and the 1996 Olympic bombing in Atlanta by Eric Rudolph, who was convicted of other bombings at abortion clinics.

In their study, published online in the Journal of Communication, Dixon and other researchers sampled 146 episodes of prominent news programs focused on breaking news that aired on ABC, CBS, NBC, PBS, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and Univision from 2008 to 2012.

They also found that, among those described as immigrants accused of a crime on those news programs, almost all (97 percent) were identifiable as Latinos. But only 47 percent of immigrants are Latinos, according to a 2013 report from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the study said.

Among immigrants described on the news programs as undocumented, 99 percent were identifiable as Latinos, according to the study — yet only 75 percent of undocumented immigrants were Latinos, according to an often-cited 2005 report by the Pew Hispanic Center.

All told, the results show that "the entire way we conceive of these policies is through a particular kind of ethnic lens," Dixon said in a UI release. "Our conceptualization of various issues is so tied to race and ethnicity considerations that we've actually been somewhat misinformed."

"We've had this overarching narrative now since 9-11, that our problems with terrorists are about extremist Muslims. It's easier to keep that frame," he added Monday.

The Charleston shooting discussion did turn quickly to issues of gun control and whether South Carolina should remove the Confederate flag from the state Capitol grounds, which makes sense, he said.

"There are multiple frames here. There are multiple layers of what this tragedy means," he said.

The study also found that African-Americans were significantly underrepresented in those stories, as both perpetrators and victims of violent crime.

In another surprising finding, the study found blacks were 19 percent of the violent perpetrators in the news accounts, yet were 39 percent of those arrested during that period, based on U.S. Department of Justice Uniform Crime Reports. They were 22 percent of homicide victims in the news accounts versus 48 percent in the national crime reports.

These results run contrary to previous research that has shown blacks as overrepresented, especially as perpetrators, in TV crime coverage. But they're in line with studies showing that African-Americans are rarely seen on TV news as spokesmen, experts or in other roles, Dixon said.

One possible explanation, he said, is that the perceived threat from crime has declined as a national issue since the 1990s. Crime rates have declined, and the perceived threat from terrorism, surveillance and immigration has increased, he said.

He advised viewers to be aware of their own biases and examine the source of their media news for fairness and accuracy. But don't be afraid to look at information that "you may disagree with. That's good," he said.

"Most people like to look at information that agrees with their own biases, and hold onto their biases," he said. "That's not good for anybody, not good for society."

About the study

— Travis Dixon conducted the research for the study while a professor at UCLA. Trained student coders watched the programs and collected the data.

— Episodes included in the sample were from "ABC World News Tonight"; "CBS Evening News"; "NBC Nightly News"; "PBS NewsHour"; "Anderson Cooper/Anderson Cooper 360," "CNN Newsroom Live" and "The Situation Room" on CNN; "Fox News Live" and "On the Record with Greta Van Susteren" on Fox News; "MSNBC Live"; and "Univision Ultimate Hora" and "Noticero Univision" on Univision.

— Additional research was done while Dixon was a visiting scholar at the Center on Community Philanthropy at the University of Arkansas Clinton School of Public Service. Dixon's co-author on the study is Professor Charlotte Williams, director of the center.


Julie Wurth is a reporter covering the University of Illinois at The News-Gazette. Her email is, and you can follow her on Twitter (@jawurth).

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