Monday, August 6, 2012

How people got mad wrongly about Batman murders coverage

After the Batman premiere in Aurora, Colorado was attacked by a single gunman, I started seeing images like this one above being passed around on Facebook. There were angry complaints that police and media were treating suspect James Holmes differently than they would have treated a non-white killer. Specifically, Holmes was called a killer or madman or gunman, but not - they argued - a terrorist. A non-white or Muslim killer would have been called a terrorist, they said. Another post:

I was doubtful at the time. Now, though, we have another mass-murder event, and early reports are describing a white suspect.

But this time multiple news sources are quoting the local police chief John Edwards, who has called it a 'domestic terrorist incident'. That is, days after people complained that white killers are not called terrorist, a white killer is being called terrorist.

From Google News, a few of the American media sources calling the attack terrorism:

So why is this one being called a terrorist attack and the Batman massacre was not? The most obvious likelihood is that people think only a crazy individual would attack Batman fans, while it is easier to imagine a political agenda by one who specifically targets an ethnic minority.

As for the complaint that James Holmes was unusual in being called a 'suspect', and was captured alive, remember the Fort Hood massacre in 2009. CNN led with the headline 'Officials: Fort Hood shootings suspect alive; 12 dead'. The suspect in that attack, psychiatrist  Nidal Malik Hasan, is of Palestinian ancestry and shouted 'Allahu Ackbar' while killing his victims. Yet he was also captured alive, and many American media outlets called him a suspect. NBC - in an article that was called Hasan a 'gunman' in the headline - even remarked that:
A senior administration official told NBC News that the shootings could have been a criminal matter rather than a terrorism-related attack and that there was no intelligence to suggest a plot against Fort Hood. 
Far from emphasising Hasan's ethnic or religious background, NBC seemed to go out of their way to avoid labelling him an Islamist terrorist. 

These complaints about media coverage of events are easy to make, but very hard to prove. How do we know what media 'would have' done had the attacker been of a different nationality or religion or ethnicity? In this post I show that at least some of the complaints about media bias are completely mistaken, with white killers called 'terrorist' and Arab killers called 'suspect'. 

A convincing criticism would need to be rigorous, exploring a huge number of media publications and broadcasters, covering a large number of different incidents.

Years ago I helped to moderate a huge International Relations discussion forum. The other moderators and I were denounced by members for being biased: for being anti-Muslim, pro-Muslim, anti-Western, pro-Western, anti-Indian, pro-Indian, racist, left-wing, right-wing - all at the same time! For a while we had a Dutch liberal, a Swiss anarcho-capitalist, a Pakistani communist and I, all moderating together, yet even with our diverse backgrounds we were accused of having some kind of collective agenda.

Of course we were just trying to be balanced and reasonable. Those denouncing us for bias were the ones with the real agendas. Blinded by their own political or religious zeal, they saw conspiracies against them everywhere. Media can distort one's understanding of events, but I feel that institutions that are expected to be fair, like the United Nations, media, or courts, will always be attacked for being unfair by consumers with agendas and prejudices. 

The really common biases are among consumers of media, not producers. When was the last time you saw someone complain about media bias in their favour?


  1. "When was the last time you saw someone complain about media bias in their favour?"

    Heh, one nice thing about being libertarian is never having to worry about this.

  2. Sorry David! See the latest post - thanks for all your contributions over the last two years!


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