Terrorist: a word associated with Muslims, but rarely white supremacists

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Senior journalists have warned of the danger of inconsistencies in the reporting of atrocities and the way the word “terrorist” is used in association with Muslims, but less so with white supremacists.

In an online debate organised by the Centre for Media Monitoring (CfMM), they also warned that the future focus for observing and analysing Islamophobia should be online.

The debate was called to consider the CfMM’s recent report on the state of reporting on Islam and Muslims. It analysed 10,931 newspaper articles in print and online, in the last quarter of 2018.  Faisal Hanif, the lead researcher, told the briefing that Islam was the most frequent prism through which terrorism was reported.  In addition, 59 per cent of the articles associated Muslims with negative behaviour and more than one third misrepresented or generalised about Muslims.

The Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow acknowledged that journalists needed to be wary of using stereotypical phrases and alert to underlying habitual behaviour such as that illustrated in the report. 

Examples included describing people as Muslim, as opposed to their race or region of origin; and associating Muslims or Islam with brainwashing, terrorism and paedophilia.

Rohit Kachroo, security editor for ITV News, who wrote the report’s foreword, said media organisations were doing a better job of sifting out bias from fact, but many narratives, racist and Islamophobic, that dominated discourse increasingly came from social media, Facebook and Twitter.

Those organisations say they are not publishers or broadcasters, but the focus now and in the future should be on what happened online, he said.

The way journalists associated atrocities with “terrorist attack” was also scrutinised. Faisal Hanif said there was a major problem of consistency, with nine times more articles calling Muslims terrorists as opposed to white supremacists.

One example cited was a report including an unverified witness account of an attacker shouting “Allahu akbar”, which turned out to be false, but perpetuated a stereotype.  Such lapses fuelled anti Islam sentiment, Jon Snow said.

But the process of getting a story had to be understood. Rohit Kachroo said journalists were reluctant to say something was terrorism unless police categorised it as such and a great deal of caution was exercised. Things were not clear in the immediate aftermath of an incident and witness accounts can be unreliable.

The motive, not the method, defined something as terrorism and when Jo Cox MP was murdered, the motive became clear over time. This terrible case had made journalists much more aware of the definition of terrorism.

In criticising media lapses, it was important to understand that the media was not one homogenous blob, Rohit Kachroo said, admitting that industry-wide bias and prejudice had a range of reasons, but there were many journalists trying to ensure this did not happen.

Frank Gardner, the BBC security correspondent, said the first few hours after an incident were difficult to report when facts, comment and answers were simply not available.

Addressing the criticism that white supremacist attacks were not often described as terrorism, he said all attacks should be treated on the same basis. Terrorism was an attack against civilians in support of political views — and this was colour blind. White supremacist attacks, he said, were terrorism. 

Lizzie Dearden, home affairs and security correspondent for The Independent, said there was now much more understanding about terrorism by the far right, but global authorities had not caught up with this.

She said most media would wait for the authorities to declare formally that something was terrorism before making that call themselves. There had been inconsistencies: the Finsbury mosque attack in 2017 was quickly said to be terrorism, but an attack by a neo-Nazi in a supermarket was not. The issue was how the police categorised attacks as terrorism, but also the definition of the word.

Alexander Gent, from the National Association of Muslim Police, told the briefing that language could stigmatise Muslims and he has raised concerns with counter-terrorism police.

Jon Snow warned against using religious handles when identifying an action or activity. He wondered why in Northern Ireland, attacks by one Christian group or another were never described as “Christian terrorism”.

Professor Paul Spoonley, of Massey University, New Zealand, has investigated the far right and issues around immigration. He said the association of terrorism with Islam and Muslims was embedded in media reporting and public minds.

After the Christchurch shooting in March 2019, terrorism was not immediately associated with the far right. Since the attack on children in Norway and then the Christchurch massacre, the debate had been reset, but it remained a major challenge, he said.

Rizwana Hamid, director of the Centre for Media Monitoring, said the report was not about bashing the media. It was to highlight issues the media was grappling with and to work together to uphold journalism standards.