Muslims commit far fewer terrorist attacks than non-Muslims, the research found, but when attacks by Muslims do happen they are written about 4.5 times more than other attacks.
Researchers at Georgia State University first looked at all attacks in the United States between 2011 and 2015, as listed in the Global Terrorism Database (GTD).
The GTD defines terrorism as “the threatened or actual use of illegal force and violence by a non-state actor to attain a political, economic, religious, or social goal through fear, coercion, or intimidation.”
“Since the 11 September 2001, attacks, when most people in the United States hear the word 'terrorism,' they think of Muslims," the researchers wrote in the Washington Post. "But terrorism comes in many forms.”
The GTD included the attack by Frazier Glenn Miller, a white supremacist and former grand dragon of the Ku Klux Klan, on a synagogue in Overland Park, Kansas; Robert Dear’s attack on Planned Parenthood in Colorado Springs; and Wade Michael Page’s attack on a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, along with many other lesser-known attacks.
In total, the team — academics Erin M. Kearns, Allison Betus, and Anthony Lemieux — documented 89 attacks committed by different perpetrators in the United States during the five-year period examined.
Between 2011 and 2015 in the United States, Muslims perpetrated 12.4 per cent of those attacks.
The researchers then searched for media coverage of each attack from US-based print sources in the LexisNexis Academic database of newspaper articles. Since many Americans get their news online, they also looked at coverage from CNN.com.
Each article they counted focused primarily on the act of terrorism, its perpetrators, or the victims. It had to appear in a US-based media source between the attack date and the end of 2016. They found 2,413 news articles that met their criteria.
Of the 89 attacks, 24 did not receive any media coverage from the sources they examined. The small proportion of attacks that were by Muslims — only 12 per cent — received 44 per cent of the news coverage. In only five per cent of all the terrorist attacks, the perpetrator was both Muslim and foreign-born — but those four attacks got 32 per cent of all the media coverage.
In real numbers, the average attack with a Muslim perpetrator is covered in 90.8 articles. Attacks with a Muslim, foreign-born perpetrator are covered in 192.8 articles on average. Other attacks received an average of 18.1 articles.
The researchers noted that how much media coverage a particular terrorist attack gets is influenced by a host of factors. For example, if the perpetrator is arrested, there is more coverage of the charges, hearing, trial and so on. Attacks against governmental facilities or employees receive more coverage. And more deaths and injuries also mean more media coverage.
But even controlling for all this, attacks by a Muslim perpetrator get, on average, about four-and-a-half times more coverage.
"In other words, whether intentional or not, US media outlets disproportionately emphasise the smaller number of terrorist attacks by Muslims — leading Americans to have an exaggerated sense of that threat," the researchers said.