Flemish newspapers cover attacks committed by Muslims differently from those perpetrated by non-Muslims, according to a study by the University of Antwerp that focuses on attacks carried out between 2001 and 2016. If the author of an attack is a Muslim, he is most often labelled a “terrorist”, the authors of the study note. “There is therefore a danger that people automatically and spontaneously associate terrorism with Muslims,” they warn.
Political science students examined the way newspapers in Flanders – De Standaard, De Morgen, Het Laatste Nieuws and Het Nieuwsblad – reported on terrorism and the potential effects on public opinion.
They thus analysed the way Islamist attacks were described compared to similar attacks committed by non-Muslims, such as Anders Breivik in Norway.
“In all these newspapers, Muslims are more often described as “terrorists” than non-Muslims,” the researchers concluded. Yet all the attacks studied are not, in actual fact, terrorist. Moreover, the reporting on Islamist attacks focuses more on the perpetrator, for example, his past and religion, and much less on the victims, the study found.
When terrorist attacks are committed, 75% of Muslim perpetrators are described as terrorists as against 26% for non-Muslims.
“Labelling someone in this way is not innocent,” says Sofie Gebruers, one of the authors of the study, who warns of the risk that people will associate terrorism and Islam. “Follow-up experimental research has shown that after reading an article in which the word ‘terrorism’ has been used, people trust Muslims less and have a greater fear of terrorism.”
“That is problematic because sowing fear is precisely one of the terrorists’ most important objectives,” adds the Antwerp student. “In this way the media facilitate their strategy. We therefore call on editors and journalists to be vigilant and avoid the stigmatization of Muslims. Moreover, we hope media consumers will read the newspapers critically, bearing in mind the risk of prejudice.”