The Problem with Language and Bias

Day 2

October 1st was a tragic day for America. A man killed 59 innocent humans in the deadliest mass shooting on American soil outside of the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas.

I learned about the news when I woke up early on Monday morning. As I scoured my news sources on my phone and in between moments of grief and disbelief, a few shocking realizations occurred to me at once.

  1. I couldn’t find any news outlets that were using the term “terrorist” when referring to the perpetrator of this horrific crime
  2. Information about the criminal’s race or religion was shockingly scarce in headlines
  3. The sheer number of mentions of mental illness were much higher than I expected

Now, whether or not this horrifying event is legally considered an Act of Terror is not the topic of this discussion. If you want to know more about the legal definitions of terrorism, Vox has a great article breaking down the different definitions here.

The problem I am trying to address is one of implicit bias in the language coming from our news sources. Before I begin, let me first address the people who believe that discussing definitions and semantics surrounding the label of “terrorist” is a waste of time and that this moment, when families and friends of victims are still mourning their losses, is not the moment to do so. To their point, I want to add that I don’t mean to move the topic away from helping those in need at this time. However, it is important to realize that there is a systematic problem in how we as a nation describe and judge certain types of people and moments like these are a great learning opportunity for the future.

Now, this is the trend as I see it: When a criminal is part of the norms of society, in this case assumed to be white and christian, we are implicitly fed a narrative of that individual as a “lone wolf” – a one-off oddity whose actions were the symptom of mental illness or other factors that may be out of their control. However, when a criminal is outside of the norm, in many cases assumed to be non-white and muslim, we are given a narrative of them as religious actors in a global orchestration of terror – only one arm of a greater threat. Over time, it is clear to see that this representation of different types of criminals can bias a population toward or away from sympathizing with a certain people.

It is also not much a stretch to consider that, again over time, a population will be more likely to make assumptions of other people who share similar traits with criminals. When the press paints one criminal’s most notable traits are their race and religion while another’s as their mental wellness, it is easy to see how people can start to make unfair assumptions and broad generalizations of others with the same race or religion.

From my research, this bias can be seen time and time again when news outlets were quick to mention the race and religion of minority criminals, even quick to call them terrorists before an official declaration by the FBI, such as after the 2015 San Bernardino shootings or after the 2016 Orlando shootings. However, at an incident perpetrated by a majority criminal, the new stories are crafted either with a lack of the word “terrorism” or with a hint of implicit sympathy that those criminals do not deserve, such as after the 2017 explosion of a Minnesota Mosque or after this most recent Las Vegas shooting.

And one does not have to look far to see the effects that this news bias has had on certain parts of the population. Take a look at members of /r/The_Donald before and after learning the race of the Las Vegas shooter.

When the press mostly attributes the label of “terrorism” to muslims, after a violent act that resembles terrorism occurs, the logical fallacy that the terrorist must be muslim occurs. E.G. ‘X muslim did an act of terrorism so all acts of terrorism must be done by muslims.’ Granted /r/The_Donald is not likely to be an accurate representation of the average viewpoint, this still serves as a demonstration of the effects of bias language in the media.

Now whether or not the criminal responsible for the Vegas shootings turns out to truly be a lone wolf with a mental illness or a terrorist is irrelevant because the headlines are already printed. The takeaway is this – language matters. I believe that the way we differentiate our descriptions of different types of criminals based on race or religion has cascading and long-term effects on the public’s perception of others of that race or religion. As far as it is controllable, our media should strive to be as consistent as possible in how they describe these criminals and how they report these events.



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