How the British Media Reports Terrorism

This report has found that media coverage of terrorism has been consistently inconsistent, albeit with recent improvements following the Christchurch attack in which Brenton Tarrant killed 51 Muslim worshippers. There is significant disparity in the association of “terror” between so-called Muslim and non-Muslim perpetrators: over half of the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” were used with the terms “Islam” or “Muslim” – almost nine times more than when the perpetrator was identified with the terms “far-right”, “neo-Nazi” or “white supremacist”.

CfMM analysed over 230,000 articles published in 31 national online media outlets to show the inconsistencies in the coverage of terrorist attacks, depending on the background of the perpetrator. The report also includes feedback from editorial directors, managing editors, editors and security correspondents who attended a CfMM roundtable on “Reporting of Terrorism”.

Key findings

There is inconsistency in the way attacks have been reported depending on who the perpetrator is:

  • Words identifying Muslims or Islam are more frequently placed alongside “terror”, “terrorist”, “terrorism”, or “terrorist(s)” incomparison with the most frequent identifiers of “far-right” or “white-supremacist” terrorism.
  • Between 2015-2019, over half of the terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” were used with the terms “Islam” or “Muslim.”  This is almost nine times more than with the terms “far-right”, “neo-Nazi” or “white supremacist.”
  • During the period October – December 2018, at least one in four online articles mentioning one or more identifiers of Muslims and/or Islam fell under the theme of terrorism or extremism.
  • Whilst there were more than twice the number of referrals for “Islamist extremists” than “far-right extremists” to the Government’s Counter-Terrorism Programme between 2017/2018, online media coverage disproportionately referred to “Islamist” terror six times more frequently.
  • Statistical comparison of terror attacks in the last 18 months show a reluctance to label white supremacist attacks as “terrorist attacks”compared with their so-called Muslim counterparts (in particular in right-leaning print media).
  • Mainstream presenters and reporters across terrestrial channels often failed to challenge pro-white supremacist and anti-Muslim rhetoric during the coverage of the Christchurch attacks.
  • Online news sites, in particular, the Mail Online, have appropriated the phrase “Allahu Akbar” in headlines as shorthand for terrorism committed by individuals of a Muslim background.

Significant improvements have been made in the past year, with greater recognition of white supremacist terror, mainly as a result of major attacks in Christchurch and El Paso:

  • The terms “terrorist”, “terrorism” or “terror” in 2019 were accompanied by “Islam” or “Muslim” only twice as often as “far-right”, “neo-Nazi” or “white supremacist”.
  • BBC, ITV and Sky have all explored the issue of “white supremacist” terrorism with much greater rigour in their live reporting with some outstanding recent examples.
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