Photo illustration by John Lyman

World News

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Politics of Labelling

Christchurch shooting: Alleged gunman, Brenton Tarrant, to make fifth court appearance.” “Alleged Christchurch Shooter Brenton Tarrant’s letter from prison revealed.” “Christchurch mosque shootings: Accused gunman Brenton Tarrant pleads not guilty.” These are just a few of the problematic headlines of current news stories in the New Zealand (NZ) press.

Why are they a problem? Because non-‘whites’ would be labeled differently. One may argue it can be as simple as a terrorist being called a terrorist, but, it’s about the inconsistency of labels between the same crime and different responses.

Brenton Tarrant’s actions fit the contested characteristics of a terrorist, so why hasn’t he been consistently labeled a terrorist?

A bias exists towards individuals/groups associated with Islam. The press and media often throw the term “terrorism” or “terrorist” around loosely when the perpetrator is Muslim but are reluctant to use those terms when the attacker is white.

On 13th November 2015, 130 people were killed and hundreds wounded in Paris terror attacks. Organized by the Islamic State, the “gunman” and “suicide bombers” were labeled terrorists, and the event a terror attack, and these terms were widely used in the media. 15th March 2019, 51 killed and 49 injured in the Christchurch terror attack. Six hours after the incident, Prime Minister Jacinda Arden labeled it an act of terror on national television. Although there was international recognition of Arden’s swift labelling of the shootings as terrorism, many media outlets, both local and international, failed to follow suit.

A symbiotic relationship exists between the media and terrorism in a democratic society, where, if one says ‘media,’ one also says ‘terrorism,’ as the very nature of terrorism is to psychologically disturb a population by communicating a threat to the wider society. The message, delivered by the press.

Agenda setting by the press or media is inherently an ideological act, and what the news covers generally tends to reflect the underlying beliefs of a society. The script of the broadcasters can influence and/or reinforce stereotypes. Hence it is essential that the press and media are conscious about their reporting decisions. Therefore, referring to Brenton Tarrant as just a gunman means not only has the media failed 1.6 billion Muslims around the world, it also means that they are reaffirming the untrue popular narrative that Muslims are terrorists.

For a long time terror attacks have been depicted as a ‘Muslim problem.’ Abbas Barzegar of the Council on American Islamic Relations stated that an act of violence is described as “terrorist only when it applies to Muslims.”

A study by the Institute for Social Policy and Understanding (ISPU) found that, historically, acts in the name of Islam have received 770 percent more media coverage compared to acts in the name of white supremacy. Another study by the University of Alabama shows that terror attacks by Muslims receive on average 105 headlines whereas non-Muslim receive only 15. If the media drops the label of ‘terrorist,’ ‘terrorism,’ and ‘terror’ when referring to the Brenton Tarrant case, they are playing into the narrative and are contributing to these statistics. The unequal coverage of the Christchurch mosque attack shows how much right-wing terrorism has gone unnoticed as ‘gun violence’ due to the perpetrator not being labeled a terrorist.

Muslims around the world feel the need to defend Islam whenever acts are carried out in their name because it’s associated with the community and people. However, attacks carried by non-Muslims are not associated with a group or community. Therefore, the media and the press need to step up their game on providing unbiased reporting of terrorism, especially given that bias already exists; they need to double their efforts.

Ignorance and uninformed opinions about the teachings of Islam creates an unsafe environment for Muslims. It needs to be understood that the prohibition of violence is central to Islamic teachings, but this message is not widely known or acknowledged in the media. The media is such a powerful tool for shaping public opinion and therefore has a duty to be fair and balanced in its reporting.

Because it has emotional and attitudinal impacts on audiences, it is necessary that reporting is factual and unbiased, however, it should not influence decisions made in a courtroom. The emerging function of the media (regarded as the Fourth Estate) in the 19th century was to keep the government, church, and the law accountable and provide information to the public for rational debates – this is still its primary function.

NZ media organizations have agreed to protocols surrounding the media coverage of the Christchurch terror attack and subsequent trial of the accused of the Christchurch terror attack. Protocols agreed upon don’t ban the use of the term ‘terrorist,’ ‘terror,’ or ‘terrorism,’ so why is Tarrant, a terrorist, still being referred to as a gunman in a majority of the articles being published? It belittles not just the attack itself, but the terrible and direct impact on so many people, and the wider community affected by it.

The NZ media should strive to deliver an ethno-neutral press if not, it will fail certain groups of their society and essentially identify Muslims as second-class citizens because of their religion.