Violent Extremism in the News: A Cautionary Note

by Dr. Elizabeth Goodyear-Grant, Director, Institute of Intergovernmental Relations & Associate Professor, Political Studies, Queen’s University

We are used to seeing murder and mayhem in the news. News is not filled with the mundane aspects of life, but focuses on the unusual events that attract attention. In addition, there is a negativity bias in news that emphasizes disaster, crime, depravity, and other frightening aspects of humanity. It is not the abnormally good news that occupies newspaper pages and Twitter feeds, but the bad.

Given these patterns, it is no surprise that violent extremism has become central in news coverage. Several patterns of coverage are worrisome, especially given their influence on our perceptions of extremism.

First, the volume of coverage devoted to specific acts of violent extremism since 9/11 likely gives an inflated sense of the actual risk of being affected by an attack. Research shows a similar dynamic with news coverage that exaggerates crime rates. Exposed to all this bad news, people start to believe they are unsafe in their cities or neighbourhoods, even when official statistics demonstrate crime is decreasing. Political communication scholars call this an agenda-setting effect. It means that the public attaches weight to that which is reported in news, especially when it is reported often or prominently.

Second, in North America the quality of the news coverage presents a skewed picture of who violent extremists are. Focusing predominantly on Islamic fundamentalism, news coverage frames terrorists in terms associated with racial and cultural otherness. Framing and priming theory suggest that not only do stories need a narrative or “peg” on which to hang, but that the choice of peg or frame has implications for how an issue, event, or person is understood. Framing global terrorism as a problem having mostly to do with Islam and, more concerning, Muslim people communicates the idea that Muslim people are dangerous, violent, militant, lacking in compassion, and so on. It pathologizes a whole class of people, the overwhelming majority abhor violent extremism.

At the same time that media coverage focuses disproportionately on Muslim terrorists, the reality is that the majority of attacks in North America over the past decade or so have been perpetrated by young white men. Yet, coverage does not pathologize white men as a group in the same way as it does Muslims. Moreover, news stories rarely talk about the systemic causes of young white men’s radicalization or call forcefully for larger critical discussion about easy access to firearms, particularly in America. The Timothy McVeighs and the Alexandre Bissonettes are often portrayed as mentally ill (and many are), as “lone wolves”, as isolated examples of troubled young souls who have stumbled down the wrong path. Their friends and neighbours rarely saw it coming, and express their shock at how a nice guy could steer so wrong. In short, young white men’s violence is framed as an aberrant outburst that is not only uncharacteristic of them, but also of our society or culture.  The actual data say otherwise.

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