Reporting on Terrorism: How the Media Classifies Acts of Terror to Those of ‘Lone Wolves’

Photo by Jimmy Kakish

By Aron Anthonymuttu

The media has always played a vital role in society. Journalists are the messengers between the world and the citizens.

However, words, images, sounds and video’s used to provide context to the news hold influential weight.

After the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks in New York, Washington, DC and, Pennsylvania international organized terrorist groups struck fear into the western world. Through constant western media coverage to viral videos, the coverage of terrorism has made North Americans more conscious of issues that arise and the precautions that need to be taken.

But the reporting of terrorism in North America and around the globe has created an underlying narrative portraying muslims and Arabs negatively. Whenever an act of terror occurs, the media narrative often points a finger to Islam. But, when it comes out to ‘lone wolf acts of terrorism’, especially from non-muslims, then terms like ‘mentally-ill’ and ‘troubled’ are often assigned to the act.

Dylann Roof, the mass shooter responsible for the Charleston Church shooting in South Carolina, was never identified as a terrorist by the media or by law. The goal of his attack? To start a race war.

What defines an act of terror by an organized group vs. an individual.

According to the Canadian Government’s Department of Justice website, terrorism is “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause with the intention of intimidating the public…with regard to its security, including its economic security, or compelling a person, a government or a domestic or an international organization to do or to refrain from doing any act.” This includes criminal acts that can cause harm or death upon people, disrupt public services and facilities and significant property damage.

On the same page, it admits that there isn’t a solidified definition of the word that transcends national borders although Western civilizations do hold consistencies in how they define the word.

Krista McQueeney, an associate professor at Merrimack College, in Massachusetts is an expert in terrorism in the media. She says the word ‘terrorism’ is broadly defined to the point where the U.S. military apparently has over 100 definitions. From the government to federal police forces to lawyers, each have their own definition.

“Terrorism researchers can’t agree on the definition of terrorism in general,” McQueeney says. “And that is even more pronounced in the case of lone wolf terrorism, I think. You know, there’s sort of a consensus that a lone wolf is a solitary actor who is not associated with an established organization.”

She says the media’s choice of language and use of, ‘lone wolf terrorism’ has only really begun picking up a few years after 9/11, roughly around 2006.

It was popularized by right-wing extremists and white supremacists in the 1980’s and 1990’s and is still much more common among these groups than radical Jihadist.

“The media, she says is sort of hyping up this concept which is, in reality, not that much of a threat but it breeds life into it, it becomes a reality because of the language and the metaphors that the media is using,” McQueeney says.“The media plays a huge role in defining what issues people are paying attention to. And what researchers and policymakers are focusing on. I think the language is very powerful.”

It could be argued that the media focus on radical Jihadi terrorism is a primary cause in the rise of Islamophobia in Western countries. Even though, the number of Islamic extremists are estimated at a fraction of a per cent of the total number of Muslims in the world.

Omar Al-Saleh, a former reporter for Al Jazeera English and Reuters, says the media’s automatic blame on Middle Eastern people when an act of terror carries out isn’t new. He says it’s been happening for a long time and he doesn’t see it ending in the near future.

“The minute anything happens, right away, [the media] tend to associate it with Islam or [say] the suspect is muslim,” Al-Saleh says. “Let’s say a white supremacist does anything, then they want to report it as if it isn’t an act of terror.”

In Quebec City earlier this year, a 27-year-old white man went inside the Islamic Cultural Centre and reportedly yelled “Allahu Akbar!” prior to shooting and took the lives of six people while  wounding 17 others.

Although the suspect was known for having far-right views, there was no solid evidence to lay charges of terrorism against him.

Bob Paulson, the commissioner of the RCMP, says that even in a situation like the Quebec mosque shooting, it’s difficult to pinpoint what the cause is. While he did condemn the shooter’s actions publicly as a terrorist act as did Prime Minister Trudeau, he says there needs to be proof that the actions were done with terroristic intention.

“In the criminal sense, you need evidence, and evidence understood as reliable, tangible information or witness statements or documents or pictures that give rise to your belief that the element of the offense are made out,” Paulson says. “While we suspect what his motivations were and what his purpose was, we need evidence to support that. We were always clear in our investigating that as an act of terror.”

And that’s a major issue with reporting on terrorism, often there needs to be proof in order to make the accusation that the person has acted with a terroristic motive.

“When people refer to the ‘lone wolf’ they’re talking about people who act independently, by themselves,” Paulson says. “But there is a facet of modern day terrorism which has the terrorist groups exploiting the vulnerability of individuals who are susceptible to the messaging that these organizations send out.”

Al-Saleh says regardless of who is responsible for the attacks, mass murders and terrorist attacks should be weighed as the same. He says the media can’t differentiate the two acts as separate and must treat each equally.

“Anybody can be inspired by any group and if that group is a terrorist group or a violent group then everybody should be labeled on the same level,” Al-Saleh says.” They are committing an act of violence, an atrocious act of violence. They need to be labelled as such, we can’t differentiate.”

The initial judgment of whether it is an act of terror by an organization or a deranged individual is a difficult call though. Paulson says the RCMP calls the early times of an attack ‘the fog of war,’ meaning that once news breaks with little context provided, everyone is scrambling to figure it out.

While stories unfold, news media are relying on RCMP and the police for facts they can update the public with, but unfortunately that can sometimes get misconstrued.

“What we struggle with in the police world is trying to get reliable information into the media as quickly as possible. So we need to feed the media correct information but often in our rush to get information out, there will be incorrect information,” Paulson says.

It’s also a factor of the era of social media. With an overwhelming amount of information coming at increasing speeds, misinformation spreads like wildfire on Twitter and Facebook.  Unfortunately, stereotypes and assumptions come into play by the public and media at times when trying to decipher the scenario.

Al-Saleh uses the 2011 Norway attacks as an example. He says once the news broke, fingers were initially being pointed towards a muslim terrorist or an ISIL fighter. – Ironically, it was later confirmed that the perpetrator was a white male that identified with militant far-right ideologies.

Although it’s considered a terroristic act, it’s the perception of the perpetrator. Terms like ‘lone-wolf’ often come with a less harsh connotation than ‘terrorist’ but are more frequently associated with one-off or ‘isolated’ incidents… unless it’s a lone wolf acting for ISIS.

Al-Saleh says the perception of terrorism in western media may stay the same for a long time, but he says it’s crucial to put the proper responsibility on those who follow through with these heinous acts.

“At least for the media who are trying hard to be balanced and fair in a world where sensitivities are all over the place, you have to be accurate and you have to be also fair. I think this is really misrepresented mainly in the western media when dealing with attacks.”

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