AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
This week began with the city of Austin, Texas, terrorized after a series of bombings. It ends with the suspect dead and investigators trying to answer the why behind the attacks. In between, the bombings themselves and their coverage spurred a national conversation around race and how we talk about perpetrators of violence. The suspect in the Austin bombings, who is white, has been described as troubled by both police and the media.
NPR Code Switch reporter Gene Demby has been looking at this. Welcome to the studio.
GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: Hey, Audie.
CORNISH: So what exactly are people taking issue with?
DEMBY: We should start with this clip of the police chief in Austin talking about a 25-minute confession that was found on the bombing suspect's cellphone.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
CHIEF BRIAN MANLEY: It is the outcry of a very challenged young man talking about challenges in his personal life that led him to this point.
DEMBY: And so a lot of people feel like if that suspect weren't white, that he would not have been extended that same sympathy.
CORNISH: But is there any actual evidence - right? - to support the idea that different language is being used when it comes to, let's say, non-white perpetrators of mass violence?
DEMBY: So first we should just make sure that we're not conflating statements from the police and the way that news outlets report these stories. But part of the coverage has to be devoted to what the police chief said. And there's a lot of research that shows that race does shape the way that cases of violence like this are covered in the news and that the characterization of this suspect by this police chief fits into this larger idea that white perpetrators of these kinds of attacks are portrayed if not sympathetically then at least not as terrorists. They're portrayed as challenged or troubled.
There was a headline this week in the news that read, quote, "Maryland School Shooter Apparently Was A Lovesick Teen," unquote. And it was referring to a white high school student who shot two other students at a high school in Maryland. And that characterization came from the police, but that was the headline that was propagated on social media and elsewhere.
CORNISH: So you saying people have actually looked at this question of whether, like, if the same shooter had been Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent, that the headline would have somehow been different.
DEMBY: Right. And I spoke to someone named Erin Kearns at the University of Alabama. She studies terrorism and how it's covered in the news. She pointed to research that shows that - how the Pulse nightclub shooting in Orlando was covered versus how the shooting at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston was covered. The shooter at the Pulse nightclub was of Arab descent, and Dylann Roof, the shooter at the Charleston church, was white.
ERIN KEARNS: And just comparing those two cases, they found that Omar Mateen was called a terrorist. It was described as terrorism, whereas Dylann Roof was called mentally ill. There was some discussion of whether or not to label it terrorism, but the media overall didn't label it as terrorism even though it very clearly meets an academic definition of what terrorism is.
DEMBY: Now, that academic definition of terrorism is ideologically motivated violence that is meant to intimidate. In Kearns' own work, she and her colleagues found that when the strict definition of terrorism does apply to an attack, there's about four and a half times more coverage of one of those incidents in print media if the perpetrator was Muslim than if they were white.
CORNISH: One argument I've seen is that somehow we should just expand the definition of terrorist - right? - so that it would include someone like Dylann Roof or the Austin, Texas, bomber.
DEMBY: So this is what a lot of people want. They're frustrated by the idea that if we use terrorism to only describe politically or ideologically motivated violence, that it wouldn't include a case like this. There's a moral weight to calling something terrorism. And when white perpetrators are excluded from that categorization, it feels like we're letting them off the hook or treating it in some way as an aberration.
But Kearns would say that instead of expanding the definition of terrorism, we might all be better served by being more cautious in how we use it and more consistent in how we use it regardless of who the perpetrator is.
CORNISH: NPR Code Switch reporter Gene Demby, thanks for looking into it for us.
DEMBY: Thank you for having me, Audie.
[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to the Orlando Pulse nightclub shooter as being of Arab descent. In fact, his parents came to the United States from Afghanistan.]
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.