Media bias and terrorism coverage – Neal Hartman

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Neal Hartman

MIT Sloan Senior Lecturer Neal Hartman

From The Huffington Post

What’s in a word? More precisely, what’s in three words: “radical Islamic terrorist.”

These words seem to be imbued with a strange power. By not uttering them, according to various Republicans, President Obama is losing the war on terrorism. Obama, on his part, has declined to use the three words together, insisting that the United States can’t be perceived as at war with the religion of Islam.

And there’s little the media loves more than a war of words – even if this squabble over semantics has, in fact, very little to do with parsing out the reasons for the horrific attack on an Orlando gay club, which left 49 people dead. The shooter, Omar Mateen, did pledge himself to ISIS, but other aspects of his life point to a troubled mind and history of violence.

Repeating the words “radical Islamic terrorist,” pundits note, won’t bring back the dead. It’s not a magical chant that will freeze jihadi in their tracks. And yet the words do have a bizarre power to turn what should be a reasonable debate over gun control, domestic surveillance and effective law enforcement (Mateen had been questioned by the FBI) into fisticuffs over word play.

By playing up this debate, the media is, however, setting itself up for more attacks on perceived bias – bias that depend on the very words that a journalist or columnist or anchor uses or the issues that newspapers or networks choose to focus upon.

Consider: Why are some events deemed important enough for front pages of newspapers (or the top position on an online news sites) and other events are on page 23 or reached only by scrolling deep down into a web page? Certainly both events are “reported” – the information is there if you want to find it – and yet given readers’ busy lives and the increasing tendency to skim headlines, there’s a real sense that one event is far more important and vital than the other and thus can be ignored.  Whether this is actual “bias” or a matter of logistics is beside the point – the news/information producer is making a decision on what is important to know.

Read the full post at The Huffington Post.

Neal Hartman is a Senior Lecturer in Managerial Communication at the MIT Sloan School of Management.

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