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