Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

Police rapid response team members respond to the site of a mass shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood on October 27, 2018 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The suspect in the attack was a white nationalist, but President Donald Trump did not identify the incident as a terrorist attack. (Photo: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Just Like Trump, Media Outlets Rarely Label Far-Right Attacks 'Terrorism': Study

A rare exception in the glaring trend came last month when New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern was swift to characterize the massacre in Christchurch as the work of a white nationalist terrorist

Julia Conley

A new study shows that media outlets frequently echo the instinct of political leaders like President Donald Trump when they refuse to label the violence of far-right assailants as "terrorism" while showing significantly less reluctance if an attack was carried out by an Islamic extremist.

The British media monitoring firm Signal AI found that most news sources are quick to draw links between incidents identified as "Islamist" attacks and terrorism, but are far less likely to do the same when an attack suspect is linked to far-right ideologies like white nationalism.

"Reporting on Islamic extremist attacks is quantifiably different to reporting on far-right attacks," wrote Ben Moore of Signal AI.

Suspected attackers claiming allegiance to the Muslim faith were three times as likely to be called terrorists, according to Signal AI, with 78 percent of the reports the group studied identifying them as such.

Meanwhile, far-right attackers were only called terrorists 24 percent of the time in the 200,000 broadcast scripts and news articles the group read, all of which had been aired and published in the last two years.

On social media, many critics were unsurprised to read Moore's findings but took the report as a call to action for media organizations.

The study noted that reporting on the mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand last month were a notable exception.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern immediately labeled the attacks as acts of terrorism and disavowed the suspect, who holds white nationalist views. As a result, Signal AI found, news outlets called the suspect a terrorist far more than they generally have when an attacker represents the far right.

"The Christchurch shooting is actually exceptional in how willing the media were to label the shooter a terrorist," reported Moore.

"We can see the impact [of] Ardern's comments in real-time coverage of the shooting," the study added. "The example set by Ardern immediately filtered into the media. Before her comments few publications labeled the attack terrorism; after them, few did not. Ardern's voice was powerful in setting the tone for the response to the attack."

Ardern's decisive action after the attack contrasted sharply with Trump's statement of sympathy for the white supremacists who staged a violent rally where an anti-racist protester was killed in 2017; and his refusal to call a white supremacist who killed 11 people in a Pittsburgh synagogue last year a "terrorist"—while he has immediately done so after attacks perpetrated by people pledging allegiance to ISIS.

"Influential figures may have the ability to shift the narrative around events and topics," reported Moore. "Spokespeople's language filters into the media and, likely, into public dialogue."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

This is the world we live in. This is the world we cover.

Because of people like you, another world is possible. There are many battles to be won, but we will battle them together—all of us. Common Dreams is not your normal news site. We don't survive on clicks. We don't want advertising dollars. We want the world to be a better place. But we can't do it alone. It doesn't work that way. We need you. If you can help today—because every gift of every size matters—please do. Without Your Support We Simply Don't Exist.

New Legal Campaign Aims to Protect People and Nature From Polluters' 'Irreparable Damage'

"States must listen to communities' demands to recognize the human right to a healthy environment and better regulate businesses with respect to the impacts of their operations."

Jessica Corbett ·


'You Tell Me What We Should Cut': Sanders Not Budging on $3.5 Trillion

"Poll after poll tells me, and tells you, that what we are trying to do is enormously popular."

Jake Johnson ·


Civil Rights Leaders Decry Senate's Failure to Pass Police Reform Bill

"We will continue to fight and advocate for legislation worthy of George Floyd's name," vowed the heads of seven advocacy groups.

Brett Wilkins ·


Biden Set to Admit Even Fewer Refugees Than Trump's Record Low

The "paltry" number of those admitted so far would be well below the 62,500 ceiling President Joe Biden had set for the current fiscal year.

Andrea Germanos ·


In 'Landmark' Decision, EPA Finalizes Rule Cutting Use of Super-Pollutant HFCs

The regulation will drastically curb the use of "the most potent super-pollutants known to mankind at the moment," one climate campaigner said.

Julia Conley ·

Support our work.

We are independent, non-profit, advertising-free and 100% reader supported.

Subscribe to our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values.
Direct to your inbox.

Subscribe to our Newsletter.


Common Dreams, Inc. Founded 1997. Registered 501(c3) Non-Profit | Privacy Policy
Common Dreams Logo