The cultural waters in which we swim are necessarily shaped by unresolved biases and prejudices of yesteryear, which not only continue but have also become entrenched and normalized to the extent that they are invisible to those born and raised within that cultural milieu. This milieu gives form and substance to every aspect of our social lives, including how we perceive ourselves and those around us. In Biased Coverage of Bias Crime: Examining Differences in Media Coverage of Hate Crimes and Terrorism, criminologists Adam Ghazi-Tehrani and Erin M. Kearns examine how these biases shape the framing of terrorism and hate crimes in news media reports and indeed shape whether such events are reported at all. The article argues that implicit bias reinforces and naturalizes the perspectives and values of a society’s dominant sociopolitical power structures and determines the perceived newsworthiness of an event or story. One such example is the media overrepresentation of terrorist attacks carried out by Muslims, which are also more likely than other violent attacks to be referenced as “terrorism.” In fact, the article demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of all attacks are committed by those who are not Muslim, and that those attacks are sympathetically framed as an individualized mental health issue rather than as being inspired by the religious or political violence that often undergirds them as well.
The authors explain that these disparate portrayals of Muslim versus other perpetrators are primarily driven by the cognitive processes described in Social Identity Theory. This theory posits that in-group and out-group conceptions are based upon self-categorizations that accentuate perceived in-group similarities and their believed differences from out-groups in a manner that reifies chauvinistic biases. Importantly, scholar JM Berger argues that these in- and out-group dynamics, while rather fundamental to a variety of social interactions, also form the core of extremism and extremist action. It is through this lens that the media’s reinforcement of in-group and out-group bias is best analyzed. The authors hypothesize that this bias influences society through a model of bidirectionality with corresponding relational distances. The vertical dimension of this model corresponds with socioeconomic status, and the horizontal with race, ethnicity, and status as either native- or foreign-born; this situates people radially, accounting for degree of societal integration along these axes. The positioning of the victim in relation to the attacker is posited to explain the intensity of the response, with terrorism—framed as an upward crime of the socially marginalized against the socially integrated—thusly receiving harsher condemnation and coverage than the downward nature of a hate crime, where the socially integrated target members of marginalized minority groups. Curiously, the article’s modeling does not seem to account for the diversity of marginalized minority identity categories that are present in U.S. hate crime statistics, such as gender, sexual orientation, and religion—this even as they use Muslims as a control group in their study. This represents an area where future research is needed to better understand how diverse identities of marginalized groups intersect with news media representations of them as either victims or perpetrators of terrorism and hate crimes.
The results of this study confirmed the authors’ hypothesis, with terrorist attacks that are also hate crimes receiving 46-48% fewer news articles than those that are not hate crimes, indicating that the threat toward marginalized groups is socially constructed to be much less pressing than perceived threats from marginalized groups. Likewise, the authors find that attacks perpetrated by a non-white attacker receive roughly double the coverage of those carried out by someone white. The suppression of hate crime stories and the false essentialization of terrorism as a tactic only of minority groups reinforces endemic prejudices, negatively influences public opinion about marginalized groups, and necessarily hampers efforts to combat violent extremism through legal channels, robust educational materials, or theoretical frameworks such as Critical Race Theory that, when accurately applied, help us understand how the ongoing impact of structural and systematic racism and prejudice is relevant to extremist threats toward socially marginalized groups. In other words, if extremism is spuriously understood only as a product of marginalized out-groups, their exclusion and other continued negative treatment may not only tacitly tolerate certain kinds of extremist action (i.e., excusing white-perpetrated terrorism as individual mental illness), but also encourage it.
The newsworthiness of an event being tied to the value of one’s life in an imagined demographic hierarchy of worth can only serve such reinforcement of biases and further undermines egalitarianism as a societal ideal. If objection to violent extremism is predicated upon who is committing violence against whom rather than upon the violent action in and of itself, the guiding principle for that objection is logically that of defending an in-group at the expense of an out-group. A paradigm of an in-group that is protected, but not bound by society’s laws and social guardrails, and out-groups that are bound, but not protected as such, is not that of a democracy. If principles are to mean anything at all, they must be universal. Even when implicitly conveyed, the affirmation of systemic prejudice through mass media discourages these universal ideals and embodies the very prejudicial turpitude that makes terrorism and hate crimes a reality.