Hidden Brain: Terror Strikes And An Attacker’s Identity


Police in London have identified the driver of the van that drove into a group of Muslims outside a mosque yesterday. He is Darren Osborne, a 47-year-old white male. And that profile may be significant in how the media covered the attack. New social science research in the U.S. suggests that in incidents like this, the identity of the attacker has an impact on coverage. NPR’s social science correspondent Shankar Vedantam explains.

SHANKAR VEDANTAM, BYLINE: I was speaking with Erin Kearns. She’s a criminologist at Georgia State University. Along with her colleagues Allison Betus and Anthony Lemieux, Kearns studied all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015. She found very stark differences in coverage.

ERIN KEARNS: When the perpetrator is Muslim, you can expect that attack to receive about four and a half times more media coverage than if the perpetrator was not Muslim. You see that – perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about seven more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who’s Muslim.


VEDANTAM: Two things to note here, Rachel – the cases that Kearns is looking at are limited to cases in the United States. And second, she mostly tracked mainstream print organizations and cnn.com.

MARTIN: This makes me wonder, how much of the discrepancy in media coverage comes down to how you define terrorism?

VEDANTAM: That’s an excellent question, Rachel, because for a long time there has been debate and dispute about what constitutes terrorism. For this study, Kearns used the Global Terrorism Database, where researchers identified threats or attacks carried out by nonstate actors for political, religious or ideological purposes with the aim of coercing or intimidating people. That database has identified 89 terrorism cases in the United States between 2011 and 2015.

Now, since real-world cases have lots of factors that can cause one case to be covered intensively and another case to be covered very little, Kearns also conducted an experiment where she described cases of terrorism to volunteers. She held constant all the details of the case except for the identity of the perpetrator.

KEARNS: What we found is that when the perpetrator was Muslim, people were much more likely to consider it to be terrorism than when the perpetrator was not Muslim. In those cases, people are more likely to say that perhaps it’s a hate crime or not be sure how to classify it.

MARTIN: So Shankar, what would these researchers say to someone who sees these headlines time and time again over the years and the perpetrators are either Muslim or are acting in the name of Islam? Is it unreasonable for them to assume a connection?

VEDANTAM: No, I don’t think it’s unreasonable at all, Rachel. Many of the reasons driving these disparities in coverage are driven by fairly normal psychological processes. Kearns finds, for example, that Muslims are responsible for a disproportionate number of terrorist attacks in the United States.

They’re about 1 percent of the U.S. population, but they carried out about 12 percent of the terrorist attacks that occurred between 2011 and 2015. But in a rational world, 12 percent of media coverage of terrorism should be about those attacks. In reality, it was almost 50 percent of all coverage of terrorism.

One reason this might be happening is when a member of a minority group commits a crime, people are far more likely to ascribe the criminality to the group as a whole compared to when a member of a majority group commits a crime. Previous research has shown, for example, that if African-Americans commit a crime, people are much more likely to ascribe criminality to African-Americans as a group. When a white person commits a crime, we are far more likely to say this is an oddball individual.

MARTIN: Shankar Vedantam, he regularly joins us to talk about social science research. And he is the host of the podcast Hidden Brain.


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