Bigotry in the news: It’s been institutionalized


In our previous post, we outlined the collapse of American community journalism. Now we look at what’s happening to journalism when ownership shifts to those who only interest in the news is as a source of profit.

With the election of Donald Trump, racism has and other forms of intolerance have been given free rein, as evidence by two recent studies which should alarm us all.

First this, from the Guardian:

Terrorist attacks committed by Muslim extremists receive 357% more US press coverage than those committed by non-Muslims, according to new research from the University of Alabama. The researchers controlled for factors like target type, number of fatalities, and whether or not the perpetrators were arrested before reaching their final statistic.

Terrorist attacks committed by non-Muslims (or where the religion was unknown) received an average of 15 headlines, while those committed by Muslim extremists received 105 headlines.

The findings, which are illustrated below, were based on all terrorist attacks in the US between 2006 and 2015 according to the Global Terrorism Database. The disparity in media coverage is particularly out of sync with the reality given that white and rightwing terrorists carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Muslim extremists between 2008 and 2016.

Not all headlines have the same audience, though. Lead researcher [and criminologist — esnl] Erin Kearns explained: “We broke it down by the two different types of sources and we found that the over-coverage is much bigger among national news sources than local papers.”

[Yes, the main source of relatively more balanced coverage is precisely the one that’s most endangered, the subject of our previous post.]

Here’s the essential information in a Guardian graphic:

While crimes involving Muslims are given outsized play in American media, the opposite is true when Muslims are victims of crimes perpetrated by violent bigots. What follows is a shocking story of an attempted mass murder in the heart of the Bible Belt, reported by the Guardian.

White Fright

Program notes:

In 2015, the community of Islamberg discovered that a Tennessee minister was plotting the deadliest attack on US soil since 9/11 against their village. Why have Americans heard nothing about him, and why has the safety of their community been ignored?

On 10 April 2015, the FBI quietly arrested Robert Doggart, a white, 63-year-old Christian minister after they discovered he was plotting an attack against Islamberg, a small African American Muslim community in upstate New York.

Inspired by Fox News claims that the community was a terrorist training camp, Doggart discussed firebombing a mosque and a school in the village, and using assault rifles and a machete to murder the residents. No terrorism charges were brought against Doggart. No national news outlets covered his arrest, and one month after he was taken into custody, a judge released him on bail.

As Doggart’s case went before an all-white jury, White Fright cross-examined the US’s inconsistent system of national security, the media’s role in exacerbating terrorist threats, and the failure to protect vulnerable communities from racist attacks.

Making excuses for white mass murderers

And just as crimes by Muslims are overreported, American newspapers are making excuses for white killers denied to perpetrators who are black.

From Ohio State University:

White mass shooters receive much more sympathetic treatment in the media than black shooters, according to a new study that analyzed coverage of 219 attacks.

Findings showed that white shooters were 95 percent more likely to be described as “mentally ill” than black shooters.

Even when black shooters were described as mentally ill, the coverage was not as forgiving as it was for whites responsible for similar kinds of attacks, said Scott Duxbury, lead author of the study and a doctoral student in sociology at The Ohio State University.

“There’s a big difference in how black and white mass shooters are covered in the media,” Duxbury said.

“Much of the media coverage of white shooters framed them as sympathetic characters who were suffering from extreme life circumstances. But black shooters were usually made to seem dangerous and a menace to society.”

For example, when shooters were framed in the media as mentally ill, 78 percent of white attackers were described as being victims of society – as being under a lot of stress, for example – versus only 17 percent of black shooters.

Duxbury conducted the research with Laura Frizzell and Sadé Lindsay, also sociology doctoral students at Ohio State. Their study appears online in the Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency.

The researchers defined mass shootings as those in which four or more victims were shot in a single event, not including the perpetrator.

They used two news data sources to collect 433 media articles or transcripts about 219 randomly selected mass shootings in the United States from 2013 through 2015.

The researchers controlled for a variety of factors that could influence coverage, including the number of victims; whether any victims were women, children, family or romantic partners; whether the perpetrator committed suicide; whether the shooting took place in public; and whether the shooting was framed as gang violence.

After taking these factors into account, findings showed that whites were 95 percent more likely than blacks to be described in coverage as mentally ill. Latinos were 92 percent more likely than blacks to be described as mentally ill in media reports.

Shootings that were murder-suicides had significantly higher odds of being attributed to mental illness, as did those that occurred in public places.

But the number of victims, or whether the victims were women or children, were not related to whether the shooter was labeled as mentally ill.

The researchers identified several themes in articles that framed mass shooters as mentally ill. The most common theme – found in about 46 percent of the articles – was that the shooter was a “victim of society.” This included articles that said the shooter was “going through a lot,” was “stressed out” or “suffered abuse as a child.”

About 28 percent of articles that framed shooters as mentally ill offered testimony to the attacker’s good character, while another 21 percent said the shooting was unexpected or out of character. Another 14 percent said the shooter came from a good environment.

But these descriptions were almost always about white shooters, Duxbury said.

“Black shooters who were described as mentally ill never receive testament to their good character and the media never describe the shootings as out of character,” he said.

“And only white shooters were ever talked about as coming from a good environment.”

The researchers contrasted the coverage of two mass shooters – Josh Boren, a white man, and David Ray Conley, a black man.

“The comparison between Conley and Boren is striking. Both shooters were adult men who murdered their families. Both had a history of domestic violence and drug abuse and both had received treatment for mental illness. However, whereas the media described Josh Boren as a quiet, gentle man – a teddy bear – coverage of Conley described him as perpetually violent, controlling and dangerous,” the researchers said.

The researchers also analyzed shootings that were described as gang affiliated, because these attacks almost always involved minority shooters. Here the most consistent themes in coverage involved the criminal history of the perpetrators, their status as a public menace and the problems of the community.

These results provide a marked contrast with coverage of other mass shootings, Duxbury said.

“When the media frame a mass shooting as stemming from gang violence, they talk about the perpetrators as being perpetually violent and a menace to society,” he said.

“But when a shooting is attributed to mental illness, the media treat it as an isolated incident, or the result of the pressures on the perpetrator.”

Newspaper ownership impacts international coverage

Finally, another form of bias plays a major role in shaping how events are portrayed.

In this case, the focus of the study is international,

From “Media Ownership and News Coverage of International Conflict” by Matthew Baum of the Harvard Kennedy School and Yuri Zhukov of the University of Michigan, published earlier this year in the journal Political Communication:

[M]edia ownership drives the amount, depth and diversity of publicly-available information about international conflict. Media ownership has consolidated significantly in recent decades. In 1983, 50 companies controlled 90% of the US media market. By 2012, that number had fallen to 6 companies. A similar trend prevails globally. In Australia, two companies dominate the newspaper industry, while a single company controls nearly 45% of regional radio stations. In Spain, circa 2009, five companies control more than two thirds of newspaper. In the United Kingdom, also circa 2009, three companies account for over 70% of paid newspaper circulation, and two companies control 98% of radio consumption. Four companies account for 77% of all minutes of news consumed in the UK.

Media ownership matters because parent companies exert a homogenizing effect on the coverage of their media holdings, which can leave citizens with less frequent, less policy-oriented , and less diverse information to monitor or influence their leaders’ activities, including in foreign policy. We investigate the impact of ownership on news reporting, using new article-level data on international media coverage of the 2011 NATO-led intervention in Libya, the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, the 2001 US-led operations in Afghanistan, and the 1999 NATO-led intervention in Kosovo. . .

We find that ownership structure profoundly affects the volume and content of news coverage. Newspapers owned by the same parent company feature news of similar scope, focus and diversity. They are more likely to publish articles on foreign crises if other newspapers within the same ownership chain have recently done so; more likely to emphasize hard news issues of military operations and policymaking if their co-owned counterparts have done so; and more likely to feature topically diverse content if others in their chain have done so. However, market forces can mitigate these homogenizing ownership effects: as diverse, hard news content grows more prevalent within a newspaper’s media market, the influence of co-owned newspapers recedes. The relative strength of ownership and market effects depends on the nature of the political regime within which a newspaper operates: market pressures drive coverage to a greater extent in states with a free press, while co-ownership matters more in states lacking press freedom.

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