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Terrorism vs. Mental Illness: A News Media Paradox

posted on: Jan 5, 2021

By: Noah Chani/Arab America Contributing Writer

Since 2010, there have been 61 mass shootings in the United States. Twenty-eight years prior, in 1982, there was a total of 51 mass shootings. Given this spike, a trend within the news and media world has appeared in the discourse of how we label and talk about the perpetrators of these awful crimes. The paradox, put bluntly, is this: a white, non-Arab or non-Muslim shooter is reported as being an estranged mental health patient who lacked the necessary help to steer them away from committing a tragic crime. This differs from the media’s portrayal of brown-skinned perpetrators (not that any mass shooter deserves good treatment). Arab or Muslim shooters are rarely regarded as people suffering from mental illnesses, but instead they are viewed as terrorists, without question.

Over the years, the news has painted an image of what terrorism is and who it is perpetrated by through narrow-minded stereotypes. The “You Must be This Tall to Ride” attitude has turned into “You Must be This Tan to be a Terrorist” in the news media, and it has come to dominate and completely skew the dialogue of mass violence in this country. No actions of mass murder perpetrators deserve to be endorsed, but it is unfair to show sympathy and possible justification for the actions of some criminals and not the others solely based off their appearance. I’m by no means seeking sympathy for any terrorists, nor would I argue that mental illness doesn’t have a horrible influence on such a person’s course of action. My intentions are to gain some clarity and inspire more consistency regarding how the news reports on mass shootings in the United States.

Simply put, terrorism is the:

“…use of violence or of the threat of violence in the pursuit of political, religious, ideological or social objectives”

…regardless of the perpetrator(s) ethnicity, skin color, or religious affiliation. Unfortunately, it appears the news is labeling mass shooters as either mentally ill or as terrorists solely based on whether they are Muslim or not. They are unable to fathom someone who is not Muslim having any political, religious, social motivation to kill, or association with terrorism, and determine that they must in fact be mentally ill. In correspondence with that, they understand that someone of the Islamic faith cannot be mentally ill but rather a terrorist.

If you are unfamiliar with what I’m referring to, here are some examples of reports White vs. Arab/Muslim Perpetrators:

White Perpetrators

ABC News – Stephen Craig Paddock

Notice the dialogue used in the examples of mass violence where the perpetrator is white. The discourse is about offering condolences to the victims’ families (rightfully so) with mention of the actions having been committed by a mentally ill person. Also, there is seemingly no mention of a solution to prevent these occurrences which is the reverse reaction we see following the doings of an Arab or Muslim perpetrator.

Arab/Muslim Perpetrator

Washington Post – Nidal Malik Hasan

Notice, in the hours after an attack committed by a brown-skinned perpetrator it is immediately labeled a terrorist-motivated attack with rarely any mention of mental health concerns. You can also observe President Donald Trump, immediately posing a solution to the situation. Whereas, in the case of a white shooter, it’s just a sick person.

In retrospect, any act of violence whether a derivative of terrorism or mental illness, it is close to impossible for anybody to accurately put themselves into the mind of a person willing to carry out such atrocities. This is why I find it so mind-boggling that news sources would seek to attempt to categorize and divide such crimes. Trying to ease my mind, I’ve been able to come up with a possible answer to this complicated riddle. So, the question is, why does the news and our countries leadership reach for terms such as “sick, demented, psychopath, mentally ill” and other forms of justification for some criminals and not the others?

Trying to answer these questions here is what I have come up with:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2018, 78.3% of workers in the entire Information sector of employment are of white race, and 61.7% are men. The information sector includes newspaper publishing to internet publishing, to library curators, to every other branch of news making you can fathom in-between. I wouldn’t fault the demographics of the field itself, and you surely can’t fault individuals in the field for pursuing a career that they have passion for, but I do believe that these statistics contribute to the aforementioned news paradox. Of the 112 mass shootings in the United States since 1982, 58% of them have been committed by white perpetrators, and of that 58%, 98% of the shootings have been committed by men. Meaning that more often than not, if you hear news of a mass shooting, the person behind the weapon is a white male.

With so much of the news media industry being composed of white male employees, I believe there is a need for the news to separate themselves from shooters. Labeling someone as mentally ill rather than a terrorist or associated with terrorism is simply a ploy for public administration and the news to distance themselves and discredit possible similarities they have with the shooters they report on. I think in most all cases, it would be hard to argue that anyone guilty of an act of mass violence is not mentally ill, yet we see the differentiation of mentally ill and terrorism used so often. By labeling a white shooter as mentally ill, there is then an explanation for why they might be an estranged shooter, and there is no negative reflection upon the white race in the United States at all. ‘Mental Illness’ as a label assumes a sense of helplessness, it allows justification to be found in the explanation that they’re crazy and nothing can be done to stop them.

Regardless of race, religion, sex, our news sources need to offer more consistent explanations that paint all the perpetrators as either criminals, or mentally unstable people with a balanced brush. Not only will it result in a more logical headlines and discourse, it will offer additional closure to the families of the victims in cases of mass violence. It is hard to imagine a loved one being killed and the motive of the killer being summed up as simply ‘mental illness’ without the news diving much further into the details.

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