'Lone wolf' or 'terrorist'? How bias can shape news coverage

Editor’s note: We revised a conclusion in this column to reflect the complete, multi-part definition of domestic terrorism under the U.S. Code. We don’t know the Las Vegas shooter’s motives so we can’t call him a terrorist.  

Many news reports have dubbed the horrific massacre in Las Vegas “the deadliest shooting in American history.” The only problem with the dramatic superlative? It isn’t true.

Another decision: describing the attack that authorities say was committed by Stephen Paddock, a 64-year-old white man, as a “mass shooting” rather than “domestic terrorism.” When a Muslim person mows down innocent victims and terrorizes a community, media and authorities are quick to declare it terrorism; when a white, non-Muslim attacker does the same, he is usually described as a disturbed loner in a freak incident. In both cases, journalists arrive at these conclusions early in the news cycle when information is incomplete. (Official statistics show far more terrorism in the U.S. is committed by white men than by Muslims).

It’s a cliché that journalists write the first draft of history, but even under deadline pressure, we have to think harder about bias in our word choice and the framing of stories, and the effect that has on public perception. Careless coverage can both feed misleading stereotypes and distort history.

Let’s look first at the media’s reflexive use of the superlative “worst ever.” At least 59 people are dead and more than 500 injured in Las Vegas, according to authorities – a stomach-turning, horrifying toll by any measure. But take a moment to remember U.S. history (or even a few seconds to do an internet search) and it’s easy to find many examples of far deadlier shootings. It’s a sad reality that most victims of the worst massacres that don’t rate a mention were people of color: Native Americans and African-Americans.

I asked Bryan Pollard, a Cherokee who is president of the Native American Journalists Association, for his perspective.

“Please avoid hyperbolic language … don’t describe this as the worst ever; there are plenty of things in our history that were worse,” he implored. “Our colleagues in journalism need to do basic fact-checking. … The reality is there have been much worse atrocities and mass shootings committed against Native peoples going back to the beginnings of our country’s history.”

The unwelcome title of largest massacre might belong to Bear River, Utah, where at least 250 Native Americans were slaughtered in 1863; Native American historical accounts put the number at more than 450. In 1890, Native American men, women and children were massacred at Wounded Knee, South Dakota, with estimates of the death toll ranging from 150 to 300.

Civilian massacres continued into the 20th century. Just 100 years ago this June, armed whites rampaged through East St. Louis, slaughtering more than 100 African-Americans. In Tulsa in 1921, white mobs attacked a wealthy black neighborhood, killing as many as 300 people and leaving 8,000 homeless in what was wrongly labeled a “race riot” and left out of history texts until recently.

After the Orlando Pulse nightclub attack last year, the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists released a joint statement contradicting descriptions in the news of “the worst mass shooting in American history,” urging reporters to put the tragedy in a proper historical context.

There’s also the politically charged – and incredibly important – question of how to describe an attack by an apparent lone gunman who in this case was white. First, the legal definition of domestic terrorism, under the U.S. criminal code of the federal government: “Acts dangerous to human life that are a violation of the criminal laws of the United States or of any State” intended to intimidate the population and influence the government.

Paddock certainly committed dangerous acts that violated laws and intimidated the population, but we don’t know yet if he intended to influence the government. 

In contrast, after mass attacks perpetrated by brown Muslim assailants, such as the Orlando Pulse massacre or the San Bernardino, California, killings, the media, authorities and politicians were quick to label them “terrorism” even before we had full information.

ISIS claimed the Las Vegas shooter was a convert who committed the attacks in the name of the Islamic terrorist group, but the FBI refuted the claim, and news organizations quickly dropped it.

Many media outlets omitted any description of the Las Vegas shooter’s race; others called his motives mysterious, referred to him as a “cipher,” or focused on his mental state. Reports dutifully quoted the Las Vegas sheriff dismissing motives for terrorism, and treating the case as that of a “distraught person.”

But here’s the thing: Just because someone’s angry or even mentally ill doesn’t mean their actions aren’t those of a domestic terrorist (see U.S. Code definition above). As Joshua Keating points out in Slate, being distraught and a terrorist are “not mutually exclusive.” A 2013 study of violence by far-right extremists in America in Criminology and Public Policy found 40 percent of “lone wolf” domestic terrorists had a history of mental illness.

Race is undoubtedly at play in this bias. Some media outlets implied it was odd or anomalous that the shooter was white. ThinkProgress editor Judd Legum rightly pointed out that most perpetrators of mass shootings in America are white.

 

Fox News dubiously described the shooter’s father’s life as “colorful,” as if it were entertaining that the man’s father robbed a string of banks, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, and busted out of a federal penitentiary. Can you imagine a black, Muslim or Latino’s long criminal record being described in the same way?

 

Jordan Uhl, editor of The Opposition, a social-first media outlet that describes itself as dedicated to progressive causes, noted that the color of one’s skin determines how authorities and news organizations refer to people – even if one is a killer and the other is an innocent child:

 

Underlying this bias is the implication that Muslims or brown immigrants are more dangerous to Americans’ safety than white attackers. That is provably false, based on government statistics – yet it was the central narrative of President Trump’s campaign. Think of his calls to ban Muslims because of “radical Islamic terrorism” and his plan to build a Wall to keep out Mexicans and illegal immigrants, whom he called rapists and killers.

In a cycle of misinformation, right-wing media outlets were both a source and a megaphone for Trump’s message, and he’s used his supporters’ belief in that falsehood to justify policies such as a travel ban that targeted mostly Muslim nations.

Here’s the reality: Government statistics show over the past four decades, white, American-born men have plotted and committed more domestic acts of terror than Muslim foreigners or illegal immigrants. The nearly 3,000 victims of the 9/11 attacks make that attack by 19 Muslim terrorists the single deadliest on U.S. soil. The second deadliest terrorist attack was the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing by two white supremacists, which killed 168 people.

Since 9/11, nearly twice as many people have been killed in the U.S. by white supremacists and anti-government fanatics than by Muslim terrorists, according to a database created and updated by The New America Foundation.

And over the nine years from 2008 through 2016, far-right attacks and plots led by white supremacists and so-called Patriot and sovereign citizens’ movements outnumber Muslim-linked attacks by two to one, according to a separate database compiled by The Investigative Fund at The Nation and Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting.

Vox reported today that “in the eight months since Trump took office, more Americans have been killed in attacks by white American men with no connection to Islam than by Muslim terrorists or foreigners.” Muslims who’ve committed terrorism in the U.S. are also far more often citizens or permanent residents than foreign visitors.

In fact, according to an analysis by the Cato Institute’s Alex Nowrasteh of fatal terrorism on U.S. soil from 1975 through 2015 – including the staggeringly high toll of the 9/11 attacks – the chances of an American being killed in a terror attack on U.S. soil by a foreigner was a miniscule 1 in 3.6 million per year. The chances of being killed by an illegal immigrant in the same 41-year period was an infinitesimal 1 in 10.9 billion per year.

Remember: it’s journalism’s job to convey the truth. When we let assumptions and bias shape how we frame and describe the news, we’re adding fuel to a polarized political and media environment that’s already infected by dangerous falsehoods.

Words matter; think before you use them.

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    Indira Lakshmanan

    Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics and a Boston Globe columnist, has covered coups, campaigns and revolutions, reporting from the US and 80 countries for the Globe, Bloomberg, the International New York Times, NPR, PBS and Politico Magazine.

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