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Do Muslim Terrorists
Really Get 449%
More Media Coverage?

The data tells a different story

Glen Roberts, Editor TROP
July 7th, 2017

The Headline

A recent study by three individuals at Georgia State University appears to show that Muslim terrorists receive significantly more attention in the media than non-Muslim terrorists: 449% more per incident, in fact.  The politically correct implication is that the media is skewing public perception and creating an unwarranted fear of radical Islam:
"By covering terrorist attacks by Muslims dramatically more than other incidents, media frame this type of event as more prevalent. Based on these findings, it is no wonder that Americans are so fearful of radical Islamic terrorism. Reality shows, however, that these fears are misplaced." Media Coverage of Terrorism, p. 12
On the surface, the methodology is straightforward: take a list of terror attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015 and compare it to news coverage. 'Terrorism' is defined by whether an incident appears on the list maintained by Global Terrorism Database (GTD) – of which there are 89 culled items.  'News coverage' is gauged by the number of related articles found on LexisNexis and – of which there are 2,413.

The study's conclusion, "if a perpetrator is Muslim, expect 449% more news stories about the attack" has been breathlessly repeated by media outlets ( which seem oddly inclined to trumpet their own purported 'Islamophobia'). However, this sensational finding is seriously flawed for reasons which aren't too terribly hard to figure out from examining the data.

Let's start by listing the problems with the GSU study, and then see what the numbers look like when they are corrected.

The Problems

First, the GSU study assumes that all “terror attacks” by unknown parties on the GTD list are non-Muslim. This is significant because it nearly doubles the ‘non-Muslim’ column (from 45 to 78), and loads it with relatively minor non-lethal incidents, usually involving property damage. Since only 115 articles were ascribed to these 33 incidents (in which identity could not be reasonably inferred by the target), classifying them as ‘non-Muslim’ drags down the average considerably.

This leads to a second and more serious problem, which is that the GSU study places equal weight on non-fatal attacks, such as arson and vandalism. Even the researchers acknowledge the obvious: that an incident in which no one is killed will garner less attention (p.6). Yet they conspicuously ignore this in their calculation, which severely skews the numbers.  63% of ‘Muslim’ attacks on the list are fatal, compared to just 13% of 'non-Muslim' incidents. 

A third problem is that the designation of the perpetrator is not always a factor.  This is underscored by the 2014 shooting of two NYPD officers by Ismaaiyl Brinsley, which garnered a substantial number of news articles (about as many as all 33 'Unknown' attacks combined).  Although technically a Muslim, neither the shooting nor subsequent media coverage had anything to do with the killer's religious status. Thus, false value is being ascribed to one of the study's most critical variables.

Finally, there is the massive amount of media coverage pertaining to the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent manhunt, which even the GSU researchers admit is problamatic (p.10).  Every statistician knows that a single outlier can severely impact the integrity of a study.  Validity is usually determined by whether there is a dependency between the variable and the outcome.  The question, in this case, is whether the media coverage surrounding the Boston bombing was due to the Tsarnaev brothers' status as Muslims.

The data itself provides a clue. Four victims died in Boston over the two-day stretch.  By contrast, four people were also killed by another Islamist, Ali Muhammad Brown, a year later - including two homosexuals shot execution-style in Seattle. The Boston incident produced 479 news articles, yet Brown’s two-state murder spree garnered only 6.  Much like the 1996 Olympic Park bombing, news coverage of the Boston attack was driven by the stage on which it played out rather than the identity of the perpetrator or number of deaths.

The Real Numbers

The general objection to the GSU study is that it does not account for the nature of each attack, which has an independent affect on coverage.  Mixing relatively minor acts of vandalism with deadly bombings is disingenuous.  Likewise, if a perpetrator's religious designation played no role in the amount of coverage, how can it be factored honestly into the conclusion?

Meaningful statistics come from comparing apples to apples. The data from the GSU study looks very different when the nature of the attack and coverage is taken into account. 

Let's break down the numbers (this can also be followed in the addendum):

Roughly speaking, the GSU study arrived at the eye-popping "449%" figure by dividing news articles by incidents.  The 85 articles per 'Muslim' attack is 4.5 times higher than the 19 per incident calculated on the balance.  However, this is for all incidents no matter how trivial.

When we exclude non-fatal events, the gap drops considerably: to 129 articles per 'Muslim' attack versus 92 articles per 'non-Muslim'. This means that Muslims get 40% more coverage per lethal attack – newsworthy, perhaps, but quite different from 449%.

The Boston Marathon bombing is very much the elephant in the room.  It accounts for over half of the 'Muslim' news coverage.  Take it out of the picture and coverage for 'non-Muslim' attacks is actually about 30% higher per incident, which is a far cry from the media's preferred narrative. 

Closing Thoughts

The sensational conclusion of the GSU study, that terror attacks by Muslims "are covered dramatically more" by the media, is deeply misleading.  It is like saying that people on chemotherapy are far more likely to die within a year, while neglecting to mention that this is compared to the population at large rather than to a control group of other cancer patients who aren't on chemotherapy.

Neither is the identity of the perpetrator the "strongest predictor of the degree of media coverage received," as the researchers contend (and appear a bit too eager to prove).  Rather, it is whether or not victims were killed (fatal attacks average 17 times more coverage than non-fatal), followed by the venue's profile.  Once some attempt is made to control for these, the numbers actually suggest that Muslim terrorists receive less media attention.

Characterization of a terror attack can also be subjective.  To their credit, GSU stayed faithful to GTD’s list.  However the methodology used by GTD is not necessarily consistent.  For example, the shooting of three people over a parking space in North Carolina is called a “terror attack,” while the beheading of a Moore, Oklahoma woman, shooting of a lesbian couple in Port Bolivar, Texas, and the Houston slayings of two Christians – all by radicalized Muslims in the same period – do not appear on the list.

To be fair, the GSU researchers allude to the study's shortcomings (which is more than can be said for journalists who, for the most part, simply parroted the headline without scratching the surface).  However, it is puzzling that the group claims conclusions which are, in part, easily refuted by a full analysis of the underlying data.

[Note: The 89 incidents from GTD used by the GSU group can be found here, as well as tables showing the statistics found in "The Real Numbers" section .   Curiously, GSU did not include a column for number killed (that was added by the author of this article).]  

Further Reading

Addendum with data

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