The beheading of journalists by ISIS and the shootings in Ottawa have rapidly escalated Americans’ fears of terrorist threats. In a poll conducted by CNN in Sept. 2010, only 3 percent of Americans picked terrorism as the most important problem facing the country. Yet in September of this year that figure had increased to 14 percent. The incessant reporting on terrorist attacks is partially at fault for this escalation, and for leading many Americans to believe that Islam is an inherently violent religion.
Since the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center over a decade ago, Islam has become the face of the terrorist threat in the United States, despite the fact that these attacks are carried out only by extremist groups. The resulting expanding intolerance can be seen on both an institutional and individual level; from people opposing the construction of a mosque two blocks from Ground Zero, to individual Muslims being harassed for terrorist attacks by citizens on the street, this is an issue that permeates all levels of society.
In reality, the response in the Muslim community to events like the Ottawa shootings and the ISIS beheadings has been very vocal opposition. Canadian Muslims like Ihsaan Gardee, the executive director of the National Council of Canadian Muslims, have denounced the Ottawa attack. Similarly, international Muslim leaders—the most prominent being the Secretary General for the Organization of Islamic Cooperation, Iyad Ameen Madani, whose organization represents 57 nations and 1.4 billion Muslims—have denounced ISIS. The radical groups that carry out these attacks are a very small portion of the Muslim population.
The recurring coverage of the 24-hour news cycle has media focusing on the attacks themselves, not the Muslim community’s responses to them. Saudi Arabia may be viewed by Westerners as backwards because it also conducts beheadings under Sharia law; some people may even view them as in line with ISIS or extremist groups. Yet no major news sources, other than perhaps The Guardian, reported on the fact that the Saudi Arabian government has denied any links to ISIS.
This is the downside of sensationalized journalism and a shortfall of journalism overall. When media outlets provoke public interest in a news story by heightening tensions and capitalizing on fear, the public becomes anxious beyond reasonable levels. Viewers are bombarded with the fact that the shootings happened, or that the beheadings have happened, but not that Muslim leaders are denouncing these acts.
Additionally, terrorism is often sensationalized in mainstream media, distorting the fact that terrorist attacks against Americans are extremely rare. In fact, according to a 2011 National Counter Terrorism Center (NCTC) report, a United States citizen is just as likely to be killed by their furniture tipping over on them as they are to die by an act of terrorism.
ISIS has killed over 5,500 people in Iraq since June, according to the United Nations, and they have decapitated only four foreign journalists. Yet Americans are fascinated and horrified by these beheadings, and fear for their safety because of them.
Compare these deaths to the number of deaths caused by the Mexican drug cartels. Over a five-year period from 2006 to 2010 around 5,700 Americans died because of cartel-related incidents, according to a 2012 Narco News analysis of FBI crime statistics. Even though deaths continue to be racked up by Mexican cartels in smaller acts of violence, the media does not cover them as widely as they cover ISIS. That detracts from the citizens’ ability to put things in perspective. Drug violence is reported on, but minimally, because it cannot be sensationalized in romantic terms that endear viewers to the cause and motivate them to watch the news more.
In the end, it is not only the individual’s duty to understand all sides to a situation, but also their right to be given accurate news in the first place. One of the worst effects of sensationalized media is that Muslims as a whole are portrayed in a bad light, even though the majority of them do not support the actions of terrorist extremists. The media must look much more closely into how they present their information, and provide more variety in their attempts to create an objective and unbiased news source.