'Terrorism' or 'Mental Illness'?: Factors that Impact How Media Label Terrorist Attacks

39 Pages Posted: 12 Aug 2019

See all articles by Allison Betus

Allison Betus

Georgia State University

Erin Kearns

University of Alabama

Anthony Lemieux

Georgia State University - Global Studies Institute

Date Written: August 7, 2019

Abstract

Why do media label some attacks as terrorism while others are attributed to mental illness? Recent public speculation suggests that attacks are considered terrorism when the perpetrator is Muslim and are attributed to mental illness when the perpetrator is White. Yet, there is no systematic analysis of differences in how media label violence as terrorism verses as the result of mental illness. We address this gap by examining print news of all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2006 and 2015. Controlling for fatalities and whether or not the perpetrator was either part of a group or had a mental illness, the odds of an article mentioning terrorism is 488% greater for a Muslim versus a non-Muslim perpetrator. In contrast, there is no difference in the likelihood that a news article discusses mental illness based on whether or not the perpetrator is White. Both of our key results are robust against numerous alternative arguments. Our results partially confirm public speculation and partially dispel it. In practice, differences in how media label terrorism depending on whether or not the perpetrator is Muslim show bias that can influence public perceptions of violence and threats.

Keywords: terrorism, mental illness, news coverage, media

Suggested Citation

Betus, Allison and Kearns, Erin and Lemieux, Anthony, 'Terrorism' or 'Mental Illness'?: Factors that Impact How Media Label Terrorist Attacks (August 7, 2019). Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3433933 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3433933

Allison Betus

Georgia State University ( email )

35 Broad Street
Atlanta, GA 30303-3083
United States

Erin Kearns (Contact Author)

University of Alabama ( email )

101 Paul W. Bryant Dr.
Box 870382
Tuscaloosa, AL 35487
United States

Anthony Lemieux

Georgia State University - Global Studies Institute ( email )

33 Gilmer Street SE
Atlanta, GA 30302
United States

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