How Perpetrator Identity (Sometimes) Influences Media Framing Attacks as “Terrorism” or “Mental Illness”

Communication Research

44 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: November 30, 2020

Abstract

Do media frame attacks with Muslim perpetrators as “terrorism” and attacks with White perpetrators as the result of “mental illness”? Despite public speculation and limited academic work with relatively small subsets of cases, there have been no systematic analyses of potential biases in how media frame terrorism. We addressed this gap by examining the text of print news coverage of all terrorist attacks in the United States between 2006 and 2015. Controlling for fatalities, affiliation with a group, and existing mental illness, the odds that an article references terrorism are approximately five times greater for a Muslim versus a non-Muslim perpetrator. In contrast, the odds that an article references mental illness do not significantly differ between White and non-White perpetrators. Results partially confirm public speculation and are robust against numerous alternative explanations. Differences in media framing can influence public (mis)perceptions of violence and threats, and ultimately harm counterterrorism policy.

Keywords: terrorism; mental illness; news coverage; media; framing

Suggested Citation

Betus, Allison and Kearns, Erin and Lemieux, Anthony, How Perpetrator Identity (Sometimes) Influences Media Framing Attacks as “Terrorism” or “Mental Illness” (November 30, 2020). Communication Research, 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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