How does the media define a terrorist?

Anisa Hasan-Granier, Sidwell Friends '16 and Lindon Harris, Sidwell Friends '16 (Published: 2016)

The murder of nine African Americans in Charleston, South Carolina on June 7, 2015, by a 21-year-old white supremacist caused civil rights groups and activists to ask why it was not labeled, officially, an act of terror. Had the crime been committed by a Muslim of person of color would this tragedy have been portrayed differently? What power does the media have to define our society? (Published: 2016)

Mass media today has an unparalleled influence over the thoughts and actions of the population, shaping, reflecting, and magnifying preconceived notions and biases and acting as a simplifying lens through which we view a misinformed depiction of society. Two groups in particular have been subjected to this treatment – black Americans and Muslim Americans. Despite the glaring differences between these two groups of people – one being a race, the other a religion – there are similarities that this article will draw relating the manner in which both are portrayed on TV, in movies, and on the Internet. These reductionist images have similarly enormous repercussions on both communities, resulting in injustice on many levels.

Warping our view

The representations of black and Muslim Americans in popular culture often revolves around misleading negative stereotypes and their differences to the normal, accepted white American culture, and both groups face persistent media characterization as violent or dangerous. Prolific crime in black urban centers across the United States has been a problem, closely tied to the cycles of poverty that have reigned in these communities for decades. Underperforming school systems, lack of employment opportunities, mass incarceration, and other factors compound poverty over generations in the same housing districts redlined under Jim Crowe.

Meanwhile reporting on terrorism often overlooks the complex political context of the Middle East and Middle Eastern conflicts, as well as the large role that the United States and other Western countries played in the rise of radicalized terror groups. The deep and complicated context of these issues are overlooked by sensationalist, for-profit reporting agencies, leading to a miseducated public. In such a populace, subliminal racial biases easily develop and and become normalized in individuals the longer they go unchallenged.

As Black Lives Matter protests spread throughout the United States, trying to undo the effects of racial biases in interactions between law enforcement and the black community, they received both praise and a criticism fueled largely by the same misrepresenting media. Many people hailed the protests as a reincarnation of the Civil Rights Movement, while others, including many mainstream news outlets, dismissed the activists as unnecessarily divisive and anti-American. While the vast majority of demonstrators in the Ferguson and Baltimore protests were nonviolent, reporters chose instead to focus on the vandalism and looting of property committed by a few petty criminals. Protesters were and


are chided and patronized on television, cast in very easy half-truths mischaracterizing the movement.

Similarly, following 9/11, a wave of extreme xenophobia swept through the nation and the media. Acts of terror were blamed on the “backwardness” of Islam, and all Muslim Americans were held responsible for the acts of a small number of individuals. Following recent terror attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, anti-Muslim rhetoric has swelled once again. Although Donald Trump’s suggestions to force all Muslims to wear identification badges or to prohibit any Muslims from coming into the country may seem outlandish, the much more widespread message in recent months has been that Islam is incompatible with the West and Western values. This ignores the fact that the primary victims of terrorism are in fact Muslims and those living in Muslim countries, and once again equates the religion with terrorism and terrorist organizations. In contrast, crimes committed by white people are treated as anomalies rather than a reflection on an entire race or religion. For instance, the majority of the shooting sprees in the United States have been carried out by white males who, in each case, were portrayed by the media as “lone wolves”, outcasts from society influenced by unique environments and in no way indicative of the rest of their culture.

Repercussions Manifested

The repercussions of prejudice in the media are manifested in various ways. Stop and frisk, a policy in New York City that allows police to stop and search anyone they deem suspicious, disproportionately affects minorities, specifically black Americans. In 2014, 55% of people stopped were black. Meanwhile in 2014, the Transportation Security Administration(TSA) and U.S. Customs and Border Protection were exempted from a law banning racial profiling, allowing the continued targeting of people of Muslim or Middle Eastern origin in border and airport screenings. Studies, however, have proven both stop and frisk and TSA screening to be largely ineffective. A report released by the New York attorney general’s office in 2013 reported that just 1.5% of all stop-and-frisk arrests result in a prison sentence and only 0.1% resulted in a conviction for a violent crime or weapon possession. A leaked TSA report 2015 demonstrated that a Homeland Security audit of airport security resulted in a 95% failure rate in detecting smuggled bombs or weapons, revealing their methods to be not only expensive and offensive, but ineffective in actually preventing real threats.

Legacies of prejudice fueled by false narratives have other far-reaching effects from aw enforcement to hate crimes. Subliminal prejudices in the minds of law enforcement can influence the split-second decision-making that takes innocent lives far too often, as in the case of Michael Brown, Laquan McDonald, and countless others. Meanwhile in the last year, a mass shooting resulted in the slaughter of nine innocents at a historically black congregation in Charleston, South Carolina. Another shooting in Chapel Hill, North Carolina ended with the murder of three Muslim students and following the rise of anti-Muslim and divisive rhetoric in the media and politics, hate crimes targeting Muslims, Muslim-owned businesses, and mosques have tripled.

With power, responsibility

The media has the powerful ability to influence people’s understanding of the world

outside of their immediate communities. Unfortunately, this has consistently worked to the

disadvantage of communities of color by creating narratives about cultures, individuals, and issues of violence and extremism through skewed lenses and narrow perspectives. Terrorism, extremism, and elevated crime levels are all exceptionally complex and important issues that have cost thousands of lives. They are issues that must be addressed, but presentation of theses issues in the media has by no means resulted in productive ways to solve them. Many mass media outlets only reinforce our internalized racial biases and ultimately lead to more hatred and the deaths of more innocent people.

So what can we do? The flaws in our social culture reflects the flaws in our media and

vice versa. Those faults must be addressed to prevent more generations of people from entering this cycle of inequity. Despite the enormity of the issues our society faces, individuals do have the power to make a difference by recognizing and fighting our own unconscious biases.