4 things media outlets do wrong when they cover violent extremism

by Beth Hallowell, Communications Research Director, American Friends Service Committee

Reading mainstream media coverage of groups like ISIS can feel like Groundhog’s Day, with the same mistakes repeated over and over again. Our research team at the American Friends Service Committee documents these patterns and their terrible consequences for the U.S. national conversation on violence, racism, and religion in a new report that we’ll be sharing at PeaceCon2016.

Interested in what we found? Here are the four most common storylines that major media use to cover violent extremism:

  1. Major media almost always mentions Islam when they cover political violence, even when the subject of the article has no connection to religion. AFSC’s research shows that articles covering violent extremism mention Islam about 90% of the time.
  1. Major media almost never covers non-violent responses to violent conflict. At least, not when compared to the amount of coverage devoted to military intervention into violent conflict, state surveillance of groups like al-Shabab, and so forth. We found that for every story covering nonviolent responses to extremist violence, there were 5 that covered violent responses to that conflict. How’s that for balanced coverage?
  1. Major media frame groups like ISIS as both crazy and totally sane. To hear major media tell it, everyone affiliated with a group like ISIS or al-Qaeda is a Criminal Minds character – totally psychotic, and yet so cunning you need the full weight of the FBI (and the CIA, and the military, and everyone else) to bring them down. What would Mandy Patinkin say?
  1. They cover violence as inevitable, rather than as a choice that people make. Reading about violent extremism, one could be forgiven for thinking that U.S. responses to it – military or otherwise – are inevitable. But they aren’t. Studies have shown that nonviolent civil resistance and peacebuilding are much more effective in the long run than armed conflict.

Want to learn more? Join us on May 24th at the Alliance for Peacebuilding’s Annual Conference where we will be discussing the results of our research. Can’t make it to DC? Follow the conversation live on Twitter at #PeaceCon2016.