Today
Fri 17 September 2021

How the press reports suspected Islamic terrorism versus suspected Islamophobic terrorism is a clear double standard, says Christian Christensen

On the afternoon of 7 April, 2017, I started to get text messages on my phone from Stockholm. I was in England at the time and it quickly became clear that something terrible had happened back in Sweden. 

It turns out a man had hijacked a truck and used it to kill four pedestrians. Three weeks later, a fifth person would die in hospital from their injuries. 

The immediate assumption was that this had been a deliberate terrorist attack committed by a Muslim. This proved to be correct. The international media coverage was widespread, immediate and intense. Almost every major outlet gave the attack sustained attention over several days. 

The fact that there had been very few terrorist attacks on Swedish soil over the centuries, and that Sweden had a global reputation for being a peaceful nation, played into the coverage. 

Fast forward to 6 June, 2021. A 20-year-old man deliberately drove a truck into a family out for a Sunday walk in the city of London in Canada, just a few miles from the US border. Four people were killed and the sole survivor was a nine-year-old boy, now an orphan. 

Police quickly established that the attack had been pre-meditated and that the victims had been targeted for one specific reason: they were Muslims. Several days later, Canadian Prime Minister Trudeau labelled the attack as “terrorism”.

Despite the similarities in both cases, the killings in Canada received nowhere near the volume of international media coverage as the killings in Stockholm. The attack in Canada was not immediately labelled as terrorism, but often framed as simply a “pre-meditated attack”. This was in stark contrast to how the press immediately called the Stockholm truck attack terrorism. In Sweden, where I live, the national public service broadcaster didn’t even have the Canada attack on its news homepage until long afterwards.

The outrage on social media following the Stockholm attack – with people often asking why ‘moderate Muslims’ were not more public in their condemnation of terrorism – was also not replicated after the Canada attack. 

What becomes clear is that there appear to be two standards for how terrorism is covered by mainstream media outlets: one applies when the attacker is Muslim; the second when the attacker is not. 

The amplifying of Muslim terrorism and the downplaying of non-Muslim terrorism is standard practice. A 2019 study, which examined US media coverage of 136 terrorist attacks in America over a 10-year span, found that attacks committed by Muslims received 357% more coverage than attacks committed by non-Muslims. 

Similarly, a study of 200,000 news articles covering 11 separate incidents, found that Islamic extremists were labelled as “terrorists” in 78% of stories, compared to just 24% for far-right extremists

A common response to my critique has been that the Canada attack was covered by news organisations such as CNN, the BBC and The New York Times. Regardless of this, there is a substantial difference in the volume, tone and urgency of media coverage of terrorism when the suspect is even suspected of being Muslim. 

When the killing of four people in Stockholm is given prominence in almost all major media outlets, and dominates on social media, this sends a clear message that this incident is ‘newsworthy’ – as it should be. However, when a story with virtually the same parameters is relegated to the news margins – presented with far less emotive energy – this sends a message that this attack, these deaths, somehow matter less. 

The events in Stockholm and Canada were both violent tragedies, with lives lost and families torn apart. Both should have been given the same prominence by the media. That they weren’t is a disservice to society and the victims – and a win for those wanting to spread division and hate.

Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University

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