Do conservative and liberal media frame terrorism differently?

Do conservative and liberal media frame terrorism differently?

Conservatives and liberals often talk about terrorism differently, but is this image reflected in conservative and liberal media? If so, what are the implications of ideology-based media coverage?

The dominant terrorism rhetoric of the Trump administration repeatedly features chauvinistic, islamophobic, and anti-immigration sentiments, already visible during the 2016 presidential campaign. Especially in times like these, the role of media is crucial: they can serve as a platform for the dissemination of opposing views and thus provide counter-narratives to the dominant rhetoric. However, news coverage is implicitly or explicitly driven by political agendas, and media often do not choose to counter alarmist politics. Based on the specific agendas, a medium can frame terrorism in a variety of ways: it gives meaning to events, ascribes moral judgements, and proposes countermeasures. Media thus shape the reality and, very troublingly, have the power to alter the audience’s preconceptions about terrorism on a broader level.

A master thesis aimed to examine the influence of such media-espoused political ideologies—specifically, conservatism, liberalism, or no discernable political ideology—on terrorism coverage. One could anticipate conservative and liberal media to frame terrorism differently due to their inherent ideological differences: liberalism is associated with open-mindedness and tolerance; conservatism is thought to relate to lower tolerance and trust and higher dogmatism and risk-aversion. In relation to terrorism, conservatism better manages threat by emphasizing the maintenance of the current order. Even though more effective for the in-group’s safety, a conservative stance on terrorism is likely to be more unsympathetic to and discriminatory against out-groups. The thesis set out to examine whether these assumptions hold in practice.

The paper qualitatively and quantitatively analyzed terrorism coverage of a right-wing and Islamic terrorist attack in 2017 by a sample of conservative, center, and liberal U.S. media. It showed that in contrast to that of liberal media, conservative media’s framing of terrorism reflects the dominant narrative espoused by the Republican Party; is more sympathetic to the right-wing perpetrator and less sympathetic to the Islamic perpetrator; and, more broadly, paints Islam and Muslims in a more negative light.

For instance, conservative media relatively often refrain from criticizing the Republican government’s attack responses, and more often use value-neutral perpetrator labels (‘driver’) when describing right-wing terrorism and value-charged labels (‘terrorist,’ ‘ISIS fanatic’) when covering Islamic terrorism. Liberal media, on the other hand, often criticize the Republican administration’s response to the attacks (even labeling it as ‘sickening’) and comparatively more frequently identify the Islamic perpetrator neutrally as a ‘man’ rather than a radical. On some occasions, liberal outlets also defend Muslims and Islam.

Nonetheless, ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ framing of terrorism was not found to differ considerably in a number of regards, such as the volume of articles published on a specific topic, the use of incident labels, or framing of the victims. Both conservatives and liberals sometimes also distort the truth to advance their political agendas.

Additionally, center media do not always serve as a neutral middle ground between conservatives and liberals, but sometimes side with one of the ideological media clusters. This suggests that one should proceed cautiously when establishing linearity of the relationship between political ideologies and terrorism framing.

Finally, profound differences were found across attacks. Compared to right-wing terrorism, Islamic terrorism is more decidedly identified as a (terrorist) attack, warranting a more negative portrayal of the perpetrator, and in general sparking more media attention on the perpetrator. In a striking example, relative to Islamic terrorism, right-wing terrorism much more often receives attributions of agency for the attack to the car (i.e., ‘the car crashed into the victims’) rather than to the perpetrator (i.e., ‘the driver steered into the victims’).

The findings of the study have an important implication: audiences that are not exposed to ideologically-diverse news sources might form biased conceptions about terrorism. As politically-motivated media feed a somewhat distorted image of reality to their audience, readers might form polarized perceptions of terrorism and no longer be able to distinguish between stronger and weaker frames. This is especially true for readers of strongly conservative/liberal media: the liberal subject might be particularly likely to develop animosity against the right-wing perpetrator and the right-wing movement as such. In contrast, the conservative subject could develop animosity against jihadi extremists, but also Muslims and Islam in general. Troublingly, the ‘othering’ of Muslim extremists in media might reinforce the ‘us versus them’ rhetoric, further marginalizing not only Muslims, but also immigrants and people with different skin color.