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CfMM Special Report: How The British Media Reports Terrorism

On 24 August 2020, the MCB’s Centre for Media Monitoring released a ground-breaking report entitled: “How The British Media Reports Terrorism”.

This report has found that media coverage of terrorism has been consistently inconsistent, albeit with recent improvements following the Christchurch attack in which Brenton Tarrant killed 51 Muslim worshippers. There is significant disparity in the association of “terror” between so-called Muslim and non-Muslim perpetrators: over half of the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” were used with the terms “Islam” or “Muslim” – almost nine times more than when the perpetrator was identified with the terms “far-right”, “neo-Nazi” or “white supremacist”.

As the sentencing of Tarrant begins on 24th August, this timely and groundbreaking report details CfMM’s own quantitative and qualitative analysis of 16 terrorist attacks between 2015 – 2020 in America, Britain and Europe, alongside a comprehensive section on the Christchurch attack.

CfMM analysed over 230,000 articles published in 31 national online media outlets to show the inconsistencies in the coverage of terrorist attacks, depending on the background of the perpetrator. The report also includes feedback from editorial directors, managing editors, editors and security correspondents who attended a CfMM roundtable on “Reporting of Terrorism”.

Key insights:
  • There is inconsistency in the way attacks have been reported depending on who the perpetrator is:
    • Words identifying Muslims or Islam are more frequently placed alongside “terror”, “terrorist”, “terrorism”, or “terrorist(s)” in comparison with the most frequent identifiers of “far-right” or “white-supremacist” terrorism.
    • Between 2015-2019, over half of the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” were used with the terms “Islam” or “Muslim.”  This is almost nine times more than with the terms “far-right”, “neo-Nazi” or “white supremacist.”
    • During the period October – December 2018, at least one in four online articles mentioning one or more identifiers of Muslims and/or Islam fell under the theme of terrorism or extremism.
    • Whilst there were more than twice the number of referrals for “Islamist extremists” than “far-right extremists” to the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Programme between 2017/2018, online media coverage disproportionately referred to “Islamist” terror six times more frequently.
    • Statistical comparison of terror attacks in the last 18 months show a reluctance to label white supremacist attacks as “terrorist attacks” compared with their so-called Muslim counterparts (in particular in right-leaning print media).
    • Mainstream presenters and reporters across terrestrial channels often failed to challenge pro-white supremacist and anti-Muslim rhetoric during the coverage of the Christchurch attacks.
    • Online news sites, in particular, the Mail Online, have appropriated the phrase “Allahu Akbar” in headlines as shorthand for terrorism committed by individuals of a Muslim background.
  • Significant improvements have been made in the past year, with greater recognition of white supremacist terror, mainly as a result of major attacks in Christchurch and El Paso:
    • The terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” in 2019 were accompanied by “Islam” or “Muslim” only twice as often as “far-right”, “neo-Nazi” or “white supremacist”.
    • BBC, ITV and Sky have all explored the issue of “white supremacist” terrorism with much greater rigour in their live reporting with some outstanding recent examples.
Rizwana Hamid, Director of Centre for Media Monitoring, said:“Whilst there now appears to be a recognition of the importance of consistency and the scale of the far-right threat amongst the broadcasters, and most of the press, there is still a long way to go.
“Inconsistencies remain, with a disproportionate focus on Muslims. Worst of all, headlines using religious terms such as “Allahu Akbar” imply that religion is always the motivator, ignoring other factors such as criminal history and mental health issues which may be at play, and which are often mentioned when the perpetrator is not Muslim.
“However, in our interaction with editorial directors, managing editors, security correspondents and senior producers, there has generally been a willingness to reflect, and we hope our recommendations help improve standards for us all.”

The Report makes a number of recommendations for UK media outlets, including:

  • Adopt a transparent and public definition of terrorism that is consistently applied, if and only if the relevant facts are established.
  • Avoid uncorroborated witness statements given their inherent unreliability.
  • Avoid spurious links between terrorism and normative Islamic practices i.e. an individual going to a mosque should not implicate the mosque in the crimes of the individual.
  • Avoid headlining with the term “Allahu Akbar” as shorthand for motive.
  • Avoid platforming far-right and white supremacist voices, except in those circumstances where their views are contextualised and can be sufficiently challenged.