It’s no secret that the way in which the media portrays ‘Muslim’ and POC committed acts of terror is of vast contrast to the portrayal of non-Muslim or white committed acts of terror. Over the years, there is clear evidence of selective reporting where acts of terror are concerned, regarding word usage and diction. Predominantly stemming from the attack on the Twin Towers of September 11th 2001, newspapers and media outlets have distributed copious amounts of headlines depicting ‘Islamic’ terrorists, but very few stories portraying the numerous white or non-Muslim terrorists.
I’m going to give you some examples just to evidence this still controversial point.
In 1995, Timothy McVeigh was convicted of the Oklahoma City, United States bombing where he parked a Ryder truck loaded with explosives in front of the Murray building. The explosion destroyed all 10 floors of the building, killing 168 people – 19 of which were children, and injuring 684 others. Some of the headlines featuring this story were as follows:
This is an important case to note, as although he was not initially portrayed by the media as a terrorist, he is the only individual charged with terrorism that has been executed by the United States government.
In 1999; Neo-Nazi and former member of the BNP, David Copeland, planted a series of nail bombs in Brixton, Brick Lane and Soho in London. His attacks, (which resulted in 3 dead and more than 100 injured) were aimed at London’s Black, Bangladeshi and gay communities, intended to create a racial war in Britain. He was given 6 life sentences, three counts of murder and three of causing explosions to endanger life.
Headlines Featuring the Attack:
More recently in 2013, Pavlo Lapshyn was given a life sentence for the murder of 82-year-old Mohammed Saleem in Birmingham and 3 attempted mosque bombings in the West Midlands. It appears that his intention was to start a race war and he told police that he targeted his victims because they were not white. Saleem himself was a grandfather, father, uncle, husband and family man. He walked with a walking stick and was only vulnerable purely because he was on his own.
What is particularly worrying about this case is that despite being tried under terrorism laws the media particularly did not treat Lapshyn as they would have if he was a Muslim. Indeed, only 3 weeks later, when Lee Rigby was murdered, the tragic death received global news coverage and cries of protest. Meanwhile, the similarly brutal murder of a defenceless Muslim pensioner on the street received comparatively little attention. This case is clearly demonstrative of the need to expose the dangerous reality of far-right extremism.
Headlines on Lapshyn:
– BBC: “mosque bomber Pavlo Lapshyn given life for murder”
– BBC: “Pavlo Lapshyn’s 90 days of terror”
– The Guardian: “Pavlo Lapshyn, the ‘shy and polite’ student turned terrorist”
In contrast, the way the media portrays ‘Islamic’ acts of terror are far different. Words used such as ‘barbaric’ ‘animals’ or ‘terrorist’ are used as opposed to their white counter-parts terminology of ‘troubled’ ‘loner’ or ‘mentally ill’. Supposed ‘Islamic’ acts of terror, are often portrayed in a far more gruesome manner than not, in which non-Muslim/POC acts of terror are depicted using more light-hearted or soft words.
On July 7th, 2005, a series of coordinated suicide attacks were carried out on London transport during the morning rush hour. Four ‘Islamic’ terrorists were identified as the attackers, all of which were killed by the explosions. Some examples of the headlines covering the event were as follows:
On May 22nd, 2017, 22-year-old British Muslim Salman Abedi detonated a homemade bomb following an Ariana Grande concert in Manchester. 23 individuals were killed including children and Abedi and 250 people were injured. It is believed that Abedi was part of a larger terrorism cell who were aware of his actions.
The London Bridge attack in June 2017 was carried out by 3 individuals who drove a van into pedestrians and stabbed civilians in the street. 8 people were killed and 48 injured, including 4 unarmed police officers who attempted to stop the attackers. Two of the attackers were identified as Khuram Shazad Butt and Rachid Redouane, with the third Youssef Zaghba being identified the following day.
What needs to be considered is not only the moral influence behind these contrasting headlines, but their legality as well. Muslims and non-Muslims alike have been repeatedly condemning the racist and islamophobic headlines distributed by media outlets following these attacks, and questioning the justification of such behaviour.
In particular; following the Finsbury Mosque attack, individuals were outraged by the portrayal of what seemed to clearly be a terrorist, as anything but that. The attacker was simply identified as a ‘white van driver’, with the word terrorist nowhere to be found in the headlines.
Finsbury Park Mosque released a statement following the attack:
“We are extremely unhappy with the mainstream media not reporting this as a terrorist attack, whereas they are very swift in describing attacks involving individuals professing to be Muslims and acting in the name of Islam.”
The argument has been used that for assailants who remain alive following their attack, as a trial is yet to take place, the media is unable to freely identify individuals as terrorists who have not been found guilty of an act of terrorism. If the proceedings are still active and the media does not follow these restrictions, they can be found in contempt of court. This is due to the potential influence these publications can have on current or future jury members on the case.
Professor Suzanne Franks, Head of Journalism at City University says: “We have to be very careful because you have to think all the time that a jury one day will be having to listen to evidence about this and if we’ve already jumped to all sorts of conclusions in the press that would potentially prejudice a jury.”
In addition, the media needs to be wary of speculation in the early stages of an incident. Details must be confirmed by journalists before they can be published without penalty.
Although these regulations of media could be used to explain the avoidance of harsh headlines for some non-Muslim/white individuals who commit acts of terror, it does not account for the portrayal of Muslims in the media – attackers or not. It is not only ‘Islamic’ terrorists that are portrayed a certain way by the media, but the Muslim community in general.
For every 1 ‘moderate’ Muslim mentioned, 21 examples of ‘extremist’ Muslims are mentioned in the media. This publication also states, “The British press most frequently positions Islam and Muslims in stories or contexts that relate to conﬂict.”
It’s clear the IPSO and other bodies of accountability are not fit for purpose. Until we have better bodies, we have to assume responsibility of holding these outlets to account ourselves.
With this clear media bias regarding race and religion, what can we do to put forth proper complaints? A guide can be found here regarding how to formally file a complaint against unfair media practices. We should also support the online campaign, #StopFundingCampaign, attempts to hit the papers where they hurt: their bank account.
In addition, we must continue to speak out as individuals and as a community against the portrayal of Muslims, in order to write our own narrative and share with the world who we are and what we truly stand for.
If we do not hold a racist media to account, who will?
Karsen Breanne studied Psychology at Swansea University, and will be undertaking a Masters degree in International Politics at SOAS in September. She has been involved with FOSIS and MEND during her studies, and ultimately aims to pursue work in Political Journalism. Her interests include Politics, Human Rights, Mental Health, and Religion.