Did media jump the gun on ‘terrorism’? A look at breaking coverage of the NYC attack
Photo by AP Images

Did media jump the gun on ‘terrorism’? A look at breaking coverage of the NYC attack

November 1, 2017

The Raw Data

Unspun and unbiased. These are the facts.

Eight people killed, 15 injured in New York truck attack

Eight people were killed on Tuesday afternoon in Lower Manhattan when a man drove through a bicycle path, striking cyclists and pedestrians. The suspect drove a rented Home Depot truck 20 blocks along a bike path on the West Side Highway north of Chambers Street. A total of 15 people were injured with “serious but non-life threatening injuries,” New York Police Department commissioner James O’Neill said. The suspect was shot on the scene and is in police custody. A spokesman for New York Mayor Bill de Blasio said there is “no active threat” to Manhattan residents.

Police officials said the incident started at 3:04 p.m. when the suspect entered the bike path and drove until he crashed the truck into a school bus, injuring four people in the bus. NBC says senior law enforcement officials said he then got out of the truck, yelled “Allahu Akbar,” which is Arabic for “God is great” or “God is the greatest.” The suspect “displayed imitation firearms” and, according to officials, was shot by police in the abdomen.

ABC reported on Wednesday that law enforcement officials had identified the suspect as 29-year-old Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov. Authorities say Saipov, an immigrant from Uzbekistan who legally entered the U.S. in 2010, is being treated at Bellevue Hospital. A law enforcement official told CBS News that authorities found a note in the rented truck that referenced the Islamic State.

A law enforcement official said on Tuesday federal authorities are handling the incident as a possible act of terrorism. On Wednesday evening, the U.S. Attorney’s office charged Saipov with material support to a terrorist organization and with violence and destruction of a motor vehicle, NBC News reported.

Distortion Highlights

  • Some media emphasized the possibility that the New York attack was “terrorism” within hours of it happening, prior to any official statements or investigations.
  • Premature speculation could bias the public and officials towards that possibility, and might feed into prejudices and unfounded societal fears.
  • Compare how some outlets present the possibility of “terrorism” more responsibly than others, and examine the risks of rushed reporting.

Show Me Everything

The Numbers

See how the articles rate in spin, slant and logic when held against objective standards.

View Technical Sheet >

The Distortion

The Knife’s analysis of how news outlets distort information. (This section may contain opinion)

Top Spin Words

  • Mangled

    Video from the scene showed several mangled bicycles along the bike path. (CBS News)

    Police said the vehicle, a rented Home Depot truck, entered the bike path on West Street a few blocks from the World Trade Center memorial and struck at least 15 people, leaving mangled bicycles behind. (AP)

  • Crumpled

    Witnesses described gunshots ringing out, people scrambling for cover and a street strewn with bodies and crumpled bicycles. (NBC News)

  • Swarmed

    Police swarmed the location and urged people to avoid the area. (CBS News)

  • Careens

    At Least 6 Reported Dead as Truck Careens Down Bike Path in Manhattan (NBC News)

  • Lit him up

    “He jumped out of the truck with a pellet gun, yelled, ‘Allahu Akbar,’ and the First Precinct lit him up,” a law enforcement official said. (The New York Times)

  • Blown out

    “It was all blown out.” (NBC News)

Reporting breaking news of a crime can be tricky, as journalists try to get the most information out to the public as quickly as possible. But in that rush, when and how should media start implying the motive for the crime? For instance, should media speculate that it might be an act of “terrorism,” and if so, how?

Below we look at how two different media outlets introduce the possibility that Tuesday’s incident could be an act of terror, from the most slanted to the most responsible. Note, these are from articles captured at 5:30 pm Eastern, less than two and a half hours after the attack, and prior to any official statement about “terrorism.”

NBC News

“Terrorism Suspected After Truck Driver Kills Eight in Lower Manhattan”

This is NBC’s headline. As the first thing people read, it colors all the information that follows. Even if the suspect is later found to have other reasons for attacking, such as psychological issues or another motive, it could still promote fears of “terrorism.”

Associated Press

An anonymous police official “said the attack was being investigated as a possible act of terrorism.”

Of the outlets we analyzed, AP presents the possibility of terrorism in the most responsible way. It only provides the above line, and doesn’t emphasize it repeatedly. It is also in the body of the article, not the headline.

Risks of rushed reporting

There are specific pitfalls journalists could take care to avoid when reporting breaking news, from inaccuracies to biasing the public dialogue on an issue. As we might remember from the initial reporting of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in 2012, many news organizations initially reported incorrect information – like calling the suspect by his brother’s name and incorrectly stating that his mother worked at and was killed at the school.

But even when breaking news reporting doesn’t contain factual inaccuracies, as with Sandy Hook, it still can promote premature implications that may encourage fear. For instance, in the case of Tuesday’s attack, reporting that implies that it was terrorism before any official investigations have concluded could bias the public towards this conclusion. In turn, it could encourage public fears about “terrorism” being a major threat, influence the government to treat the attack as “terrorism,” or even encourage public officials to favor policies aimed at preventing “terrorism” over efforts to prevent all violent crimes. (See Context section for statistics on the prevalence of “terrorism” compared to other crimes.)

Maybe it was ‘terrorism’

It may actually have been, but would we know only a couple of hours after the incident? The crime of “terrorism” has to do with using violence or fear to further a political agenda (see more in the Context section). At the time, all the media had to go on was what the suspect looked like, and a witness account that he shouted “Allahu Akbar” (God is great in Arabic). Is that enough to know his motivation? Probably not. That would require investigation.

Would media have implied this was terrorism if the suspect looked different? As others have written, media seems to apply the label “terrorism” quickly to people who fit a certain stereotype: people who look Middle Eastern or Muslim, or speak Arabic. (For example, most media outlets didn’t refer to the Las Vegas mass shooting by a white American as terrorism.) Assuming we know someone’s motive just because of the way they look can promote prejudice.

So should media stay out of it?

This isn’t to say that there was factually inaccurate information in the coverage of Tuesday’s incident in New York. But it would be more responsible for media to minimize speculation, acknowledge limitations in data, and not rush to judgments – especially those that might promote prejudice or a societal fear of certain groups, when reported without context.

Is it fact or fiction? Which outlet presents the most spin?

  • 15% Spun

  • 16% Spun

  • 26% Spun

  • 35% Spun

Fact Comparison

  • Facts in only 1 source
  • Facts in 2 sources
  • Facts in 3 sources
  • Facts in all sources

New York City activated its Unified Victim Identification System in the wake of the incident. People who are concerned about the welfare of someone who may have been affected by the incident and who can not be reached are told to call 311. From outside New York City, you can call (212) 639-9675. (CBS News)


This information may be helpful for those who knew of people in the attack area and are unsure of how to inquire about their safety. AP, The New York Times and NBC’s New York affiliate did not include this information.

Headlines

An article’s headline can direct how the news is understood. Compare and contrast how different outlets present the story through their headlines.

Calls it a “terror attack,” but doesn’t attribute that information.

Authorities are investigating the incident as a suspected terror attack, but a headline calling it a “terror attack” without attribution could be premature.

Focuses on more alarming information.

While New York state heightened security, the mayor’s spokesperson also said there was “no active threat.” This headline gives more weight to information that could seem more alarming, and may lead readers to assume a greater possibility of further attacks.

Dramatic and imprecise.

This headline leaves much to the imagination. While the situation may be perceived as “chaotic” to some, the Daily Mail doesn’t specify how the city was in “chaos.” It’s a generalization that could encourage fear.

Balance

Get the full picture! Don’t buy into cherry-picked information.

The media’s slant:
  • Tuesday’s incident was probably a terrorist attack.
What the media doesn’t explore:
  • It may be a terrorist attack, which implies intentionally using violence or fear for a political agenda, but it just happened. At the point of publication, there hadn’t been official statements from investigators about the suspect’s motivations.

Context

Access information and historical data that provides a more comprehensive understanding of the story.

How does the U.S. view terrorism?

All four articles said the attack was being investigated as an act of “terror,” but what does that mean? And how frequent are “terrorist” acts in the U.S.? We’ll briefly explore the concept below.

Terrorism defined

Terrorism is primarily defined as an attempt at coercion by using violence or fear, and often relates to a political goal. Criminal and federal definitions differentiate between international and domestic acts, and also include other distinctions.

The FBI’s definitions:

International: An act “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations.”

The FBI doesn’t say whether the “foreign terrorist organization” must recognize or have ordered the attack. (The F.B.I doesn’t specify what counts as a foreign terrorist organization, but the State Department keeps a list here.)

Domestic: An act “perpetrated by individuals and/or groups inspired by or associated with primarily U.S.-based movements that espouse extremist ideologies of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.”

The U.S. criminal code defines “terrorism” as activities that involve “violent acts or acts dangerous to human life” that appear to be intended to “intimidate or coerce a civilian population; influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion; or affect the conduct of a government by mass destruction, assassination, or kidnapping.” In 2001, the U.S. Patriot Act amended the code to include acts of “mass destruction.”

The U.S. criminal code also makes a distinction between domestic and international terrorism:

International: The activities must occur outside of U.S. jurisdiction, or reach beyond its national boundaries “in terms of the means by which they are accomplished, the persons they appear intended to intimidate or coerce, or the locale in which their perpetrators operate or seek asylum.”

Domestic: The activities must occur “primarily within the territorial jurisdiction of the United States.”

How many U.S.-based attacks have been labeled as “terrorism?”

According to The Knife’s research, “terrorism” is not a category typically used to classify attacks in the U.S. based on the F.B.I and criminal code definitions above. Instead, government, academic or media reports either broadly refer to attacks as “terrorism” or “extremism.”

For example, the U.S. Government Accountability Office reported 62 “far-right extremist” acts that resulted in 106 deaths, and 23 “radical-Islamist extremist” acts that resulted in 119 deaths between Sept. 12, 2001, and Dec. 31, 2016. According to the report, attacks carried out by other “extremist” groups did not result in any deaths during that same time period. These groups include “persons believed to be motivated by extremist environmental beliefs, extremist ‘animal liberation’ beliefs, or extremist far left beliefs.” The data was compiled by the U.S. Extremist Crime Database (ECDB), which is maintained by the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START), at the University of Maryland.

A report by CNN listed 11 “notable” acts of “terrorism” that resulted in 3,247 fatalities since 1978. The list includes the series of mail bombings carried out by Ted Kaczynski between 1978 and 1995 that killed three people and wounded 23 others, the Sept. 11, 2001, attack by al-Qaeda that resulted in 2,977 deaths, according to CNN, and Tuesday’s attack allegedly by Sayfullo Habibullaevic Saipov.

How do “terrorist” or “extremist” attacks compare with other crimes?

For comparison, the FBI’s U.S. crime report, which doesn’t list acts of “terror,” listed 1,217,400 “violent crimes” in 2016.

Violent crime breakdown for 2016:

Murder/Manslaughter: 16,459

Rape: 112,470

Aggravated Assault: 762,029

Robbery: 319,826

The CATO Institute calculated the annual chance of dying from terrorism in the U.S. as 1 in 3,241,363. According to Business Insider, the lifetime odds of someone being killed in a “terrorist” attack are one in 45,808. The article also provides several examples of deaths and their average lifetime odds:

Cause of death odds:

Cancer: 1 in 7

Influenza/Pneumonia: 1 in 70

Falling: 1 in 133

Walking: 1 in 672

Poisoning: 1 in 1,355

Choking: 1 in 3,409

Police: 1 in 8,359

Animal attack: 1 in 30,167

Terrorist attack: 1 in 45,808