POLITICS
02/06/2017 07:45 pm ET Updated Feb 06, 2017

Does The Media Fail To Report Terrorism, As Donald Trump Claims?

There's actually a critique to be made about terrorism coverage, but it's not clear that Trump is making it.

Among the many criticisms that President Donald Trump has about the media ― like, for example, continually tweaking his insecurities about his inauguration crowds ― we can now add a new charge: failing to report on terror attacks. It’s a strange accusation, given the extent to which they are covered, especially on cable news, Trump’s preferred news medium.

But at an appearance Monday at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Florida, Trump ― citing a litany of very well-covered terror attacks in places like Paris and Nice, France ― insisted this was not so, telling those assembled, “It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported ... and in many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it.”

“They have their reasons and you understand that,” Trump added, seemingly unaware that he would have had no idea the attacks he cited had occurred unless a fully invested news media had provided him with that information.

Trump’s insinuations come at a pretty curious time. At the tail end of last week, Trump spokeswoman-cum-adviser Kellyanne Conway managed to maroon herself on an island of embarrassment after inventing a terror attack that she called “the Bowling Green massacre.” 

There had been no such massacre. The closest thing to a “Bowling Green massacre” was a 2011 terror plot that was thwarted in Bowling Green, Kentucky, its plotters rounded up by the FBI. (Critics argue that the FBI more or less foiled its own terrorist caper in this instance.)

The events in Bowling Green did have a particular salience for the Trump administration: The would-be terrorists were Iraqis who had come to the United States as a part of a refugee program, and in the immediate aftermath of their arrests, President Barack Obama temporarily slowed the influx of refugees from Iraq. This is likely why Conway was eager to bring it up. Her exaggerations, however, blew back on her effort to use Obama’s actions as a precedent for Trump’s own ban on refugees and on all immigrants from certain predominantly Muslim nations.

It’s hard to know if Trump’s remarks are related in any way to Conway’s follies. Coming on the heels of her made-up massacre, it’s easy to wonder if Trump is going to accuse the media of somehow covering up an actual massacre that occurred in Bowling Green, or if Trump is referring to some other attack that either escaped the media’s attention or that was deliberately downplayed. As is typical with Trump, he provided no evidence to back up his claim.

But what’s interesting about Trump’s commentary about media coverage of terrorism is that there’s ample room to criticize the media. Just not in the way he implies.

If you spend enough time submerged in media coverage produced after major terrorist attacks, you’ll eventually come face to face with critics of the media’s practices. But these critics don’t contend that the media “doesn’t want to report” the news. Rather, we stand accused of over-hyping and over-sensationalizing the violence. Some critics worry the saturation coverage itself harms everyone down the road by inspiring similar attacks. 

Reporters have heard these admonitions and can recite the suggested prescriptives from memory: Don’t deploy sensational music and graphics in your coverage. Provide the assailants with the minimum amount of recognition necessary. Don’t publish manifestos or air recordings of the violence happening. Place greater emphasis on the victims and the lives they led. Keep things sober.

It’s like we have a set of flash cards that we can or should refer to in these situations. But these well-trafficked nuggets of advice are underpinned by numerous studies that warn that over-hyped coverage of terrorism or mass-casualty attacks can spur others to similar violence. A 2014 study undertaken by the FBI’s behavioral analysis unit demonstrated to that agency’s satisfaction that “the copycat phenomenon is real.” A year later, researchers at Arizona State University found “significant evidence that mass killings involving firearms are incented by similar events in the immediate past.”

In 2015, the Guardian’s Jamie Doward reported on a study undertaken by Michael Jetter from the School of Economics and Finance at Universidad EAFIT in Colombia, which sought to answer whether terrorist organizations flowered further as a result of having “the oxygen of publicity.”

“Terrorist organizations receive extensive media attention,” Jetter noted, adding, “We also know that terrorists need media coverage to spread their message, create fear and recruit new followers.”

Jetter’s findings made it clear that there was room for concern

According to Jetter, one additional New York Times article about an attack in a particular country increased the number of ensuing attacks in the same country by between 11% and 15%. On average, he calculates that an additional NYT article appears to result in between one and two casualties from another terrorist attack within the next week.

Different types of terrorist activity were found to have different media impacts. Jetter’s paper, to be presented at the annual European Economic Association congress in Mannheim, Germany, later this month, found that suicide missions receive significantly more media coverage, which he believes could explain their increased popularity among terrorist groups.

Jetter’s study “concluded that the media attention devoted to a terrorist attack was predictive of both the ‘likelihood of another strike in the affected country within seven days’ time and of a reduced interval until the next attack.’”

Jetter recommended that the media “rethink the sensationalist coverage of terrorism and stop providing terrorists a free media platform” ― all of which he maintained could be done without denying news consumers the facts. If anything, Jetter maintained, a restrained approach to covering terrorism would free up more airtime and resources to spend on other subjects worthy of coverage ― including life-or-death matters, like hunger.

There was one area, however, in which Jetter noted a distinct lack of sensationalism: “less attention was devoted to attacks in countries farther away from the US.” And as it turns out, the media often does underreport terrorist attacks, but when they do, it’s a result of a distinct bias toward Western countries ― the United States and Europe.

In a January 2016 report for The Nation, Sean Darling-Hammond undertook a study of how the media covered terrorism outside of Western locales, and quickly determined that countless stories were going untold: “At the outset, it’s worth noting that the argument that media institutions covered the November attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad in equal measure isn’t just unsupported, it’s glaringly false. On the day of each respective attack, there were 392 articles online about the attack in Baghdad and 1,292 articles about the attack in Beirut. On the day of the Paris attack, there were over 21,000.”

A “deeper dive” into the available data revealed a disturbing trend. Per Darling-Hammond:

The fact is that major attacks, like the one in Paris last fall, happen all the time in non-Western countries: In 2015, there were 26 incidents of terrorism in which 50 or more people died. That works out to more than two large-scale attacks per month. This was shocking to me. I can’t recall a huge moment of solidarity against terrorism every two weeks last year. In all candor, I can only recall six—when Boko Haram reportedly massacred 2,000 people in Nigeria (#PrayForNigeria), when the staff of Charlie Hebdo was attacked in Paris (#JeSuisCharlie), when Paris and Beirut were attacked in November (#PrayForParis, #PrayForBeirut), and the two December attacks in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs (#SanBernardino, #StandWithPP). Only two of those attacks took over 50 lives. So that leaves 25 incidents with massive losses of life that seemed to just … pass by.

And almost all of these largely unreported major terrorist attacks were in non-Western countries. Of the 26 incidents in which 50 or more people died, only one happened in the West — the November attack in Paris. Of the remaining 25, 13 were in Africa (with 9 in Nigeria alone) and 11 were in the Middle East (with 4 in Iraq).

To be honest, we could benefit from a president who would demand we pay greater attention to those nations ignored because of the media’s skewed perspective. It’s uncertain whether this is what Trump means to do, but we may soon find out. According to reports, White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer has announced that the White House is going to furnish a list of the terrorist attacks they feel the media has “under reported.” Note how the goalposts have quietly shifted from “not even being reported” (because of unstated yet nefarious reasons) to merely “under reported.”

It remains to be seen whether the Trump White House finds the appropriate balance between bringing uncovered stories to light and diminishing the toxic sensationalism that helps to encourage this sort of violence.

But according to reports, it looks like this is going to be one more hyped up accusation that Trump can’t back up. 

UPDATE: The White House released a list of 78 attacks it claimed had been underreported, including major attacks in Paris, Istanbul and San Bernardino.

The Huffington Post

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Jason Linkins edits “Eat the Press” for The Huffington Post and co-hosts the HuffPost Politics podcast “So, That Happened.” Subscribe here, and listen to the latest episode below.

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