On Monday in Florida — the same state devastated by the Pulse nightclub massacre last year — President Trump told members of the military that the news media were purposely not covering terrorist attacks.
Reporters who heard the president’s remarks asked White House press secretary Sean Spicer what Trump was talking about. Spicer clarified that the president’s beef was actually with terrorist attacks deemed “underreported.”
Hours later, Spicer offered the reporters a list — with 78 examples from September 2014 through December 2016.
It was bare-bones in nature and seemed to have been hastily assembled. The document contained numerous typos and several factual inaccuracies. Some of the attacks listed were so high-profile and thoroughly reported that anyone with Google would be hard-pressed to say they didn’t receive sufficient attention. Among them were the Pulse nightclub massacre, the Bastille Day attack in Nice, France, the coordinated shootings and explosions in Paris, and the holiday party shooting in San Bernardino, Calif.
The other attacks included on the list seemed to have been picked arbitrarily. More than half involved two or fewer deaths or injuries, so it’s no surprise that they didn’t receive front-page coverage.
As The Washington Post’s Phillip Bump noted, the list could be Spicer’s way of doing damage control and manipulating the media — a concept called “working the refs” — by whipping journalists into a fact-checking frenzy over global terrorism.
But what’s more telling, perhaps, is not what Trump’s list included — but what it didn’t.
Some of the countries most devastated by terrorism from Islamist extremists were left out entirely. Whether that suggests that the administration thinks they received adequate coverage is anyone’s guess. But it was a glaring omission either way.
In 2015, nearly three quarters of all deaths from terrorist attacks occurred in five countries — Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria, according to the State Department. The White House chose not to include any attacks from Iraq, Nigeria and Syria on its list. The two others got a single mention each — a knife attack that wounded a U.S. citizen in Pakistan in 2015, and a suicide bombing that killed 14 Nepali security guards in Afghanistan last year.
Similarly, between 2004 and 2013, about half of all terrorist attacks and 60 percent of fatalities from terrorist attacks took place in Afghanistan, Iraq and Pakistan, Erin Miller, of the Global Terrorism Database at the University of Maryland, told the BBC.
It’s hard to precisely quantify how many victims of terrorism are Muslim. Some analysts have floated statistics as high as 95 percent, and the U.S. government has published reports reflecting that number. But experts such as Miller say it’s difficult to determine how accurate the reports are because most data depends on news coverage, and often the religious affiliation of terrorist attack victims is not included.
“It’s not out of the realm of possibility, given the extreme concentration of attacks in majority-Muslim countries,” Miller told the BBC.
What the data show, according to the Global Terrorism Database reported by the Voice of America, is that a vast majority of terrorist attacks — about 98 percent between 2001 and 2015 — occurred outside the United States and Western Europe, even if the White House’s list and rhetoric may suggest otherwise.
A Washington Post analysis of all terrorist attacks from the beginning of 2015 through the summer of 2016 found that the Middle East, Africa and Asia have seen “nearly 50 times more deaths from terrorism than Europe and the Americas.”
According to the analysis, 658 people were killed in 46 attacks in Europe and the Americas. During that same time period, 28,031 people died in 2,063 attacks in the rest of the world.
Among the deadliest attacks noted in the analysis were a suicide bombing that killed 292 in Baghdad, an attack by Murle tribesman that killed 208 in Ethiopia and the downing of a Russian airliner by an explosive device that killed 224 people, almost all of them Russian.
The only one mentioned on the White House’s list was the airline crash.
The list also left out the massacre of more than 140 civilians by Islamic State militants in the Syrian border city Kobane in June 2015. It marked one of the terrorist group’s deadliest assaults on civilians since it declared a caliphate in the region the year before.
Also omitted were mentions of terrorist attacks on U.S. soil perpetrated by non-Muslims or people who didn’t sympathize with the Islamic State, including the killings of African American churchgoers in Charleston, S.C., at the hands of white supremacist Dylann Roof.
Of the attacks included on the list, many produced victims from the United States, Europe and other non-Muslim-majority countries. Of those attacks in majority-Muslim countries that had both local and nonlocal victims, the White House emphasized the nonlocal victims by listing their nationality and using phrases such as “frequented by Westerners” or “frequented by tourists.”
The listed attacks in Muslim-majority countries included a suicide bombing in Ataturk International Airport in Istanbul in June 2016 that killed more than 40 people and injured about 240. The majority of the victims were from Turkey. Also listed were attacks in Tunisia in March and June 2015 that included both foreign tourists and some locals; a rare attack in Bangladesh in 2016 that killed 22 and injured 50 but also drew extensive coverage; and another Istanbul attack that killed four and injured 36 in the city’s tourist district.
If there is any critique to be made of the way Western journalists cover terrorist attacks around the world, it’s that they may disproportionately focus on incidents involving Western citizens — the exact opposite of what Trump’s list seems to suggest.
“The death toll in the West tends to be lower most of the time, but the coverage the West gets is an order of magnitude larger,” Mohamad Bazzi, a journalism professor at New York University and former Middle East bureau chief for Newsday, told FiveThirtyEight.
The conversation was thrust center stage after the Paris attacks, when Facebook rushed to activate its safety check-in feature, the first time it had done so in response to a conflict situation. Soon, outraged citizens of the world were wondering why the social media site had not done so for other deadly attacks in 2015 in non-Western countries, like the suicide bombings that killed 43 in Beirut just days before the Paris attack; or for the 102 who died in Turkey in October of that year; or after bombs killed 145 in Nigeria in September; or in April, when al-Shabab militants killed 147.
(None of these attacks made it on the White House list, either.)
The news media have indeed covered all these attacks — but audiences were more engaged with the Paris massacre, which experts said could be indicative of a greater issue.
Bazzi told FiveThirtyEight that it was “sidebars and human features and profiles of the victims and all the associated stories” about the Paris attacks that separated its coverage from that of the other equally deadly incidents around that same time period.
It’s that imbalance of reporting that Monica Guzmán, vice chair of the ethics committee at the Society of Professional Journalists, told FiveThirtyEight reporters they should be aware of.
“Many newsrooms like to think they cover all parts of the world equally, but they don’t, really,” Guzmán told FiveThirtyEight. “Unconscious biases abound, and maybe some conscious ones, too. … Great journalists take these challenges head on, and never assume they’ve conquered them.”
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