Who distinguishes Muslims from Islamist terrorists?


New journal article studies newspaper articles from German-speaking countries

In the past years, terrorist attacks by people who declare themselves Muslims have particularly caught the media's attention. However, it is not just the amount of news coverage that plays a key role in shaping public discussions, but also the way how this topic is reported on. A recent study conducted at the University of Vienna takes a close look at the so-called differentiation: Differentiated coverage actively points out the contrast between Muslims and radical Islamist terrorists, while undifferentiated coverage equates the two.

Prior research has shown that terrorist acts committed by people who wrongfully exploit their affinity with Islam as a reason for their crimes are covered particularly extensively. Furthermore, studies have pointed out that simplified portrayals of these offences can lead to a general disapproval towards Muslims. Consequently, a team lead by Jörg Matthes analyzed over 1,000 articles that appeared in twelve newspapers in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, focusing on the question of which article characteristics are often connected to undifferentiated or differentiated media coverage.

Surprisingly, the results showed that the amount of undifferentiated versus differentiated reporting did not differ between quality and tabloid newspapers. When Muslims get the chance to speak, Islam is equated with terrorism less often and the difference between the two is stressed more frequently. This tendency increased when the articles covered injuries and deaths caused by a terrorist attack. Jörg Matthes, principal investigator of the study, concludes: "This study shows that the sources that journalists select when reporting on terrorism are crucial. Muslims offer an important perspective in this regard."

Publication details

Matthes, J., Kaskeleviciute, R., Schmuck, D., von Sikorski, C., Klobasa, C., Knupfer, H., & Saumer, M. (2020). Who differentiates between Muslims and Islamist terrorists in terrorism news coverage? An actor-based approach. Journalism Studies, 21(15), 2135-2153. DOI:10.1080/1461670X.2020.1812422

Study details: Overall, 1,071 articles that mainly reported on Muslims or terrorism and were published between 2015 and 2017 were analyzed. 635 of these articles made either undifferentiated or differentiated statements; based on this, it was determined who made this statement and whether a terrorist attack in close proximity as well as the occurrence of deaths or injuries were mentioned. (Image © Ekaterina Bolovtsova)
Jörg Matthes is Professor of Communication Science with a focus on Advertising Research, Head of the division of Advertising Research and Media Effects (AdME) and Chair of the Department of Communication. His research focuses on effects of various forms of advertising, the process of public opinion formation, news framing, and empirical methods.
Ruta Kaskeleviciute is a predoctoral researcher in the division of Advertising Research and Media Effects (AdME) at the Department of Communication. Her dissertation focuses on terrorism coverage and effects. She is also interested in media psychology, political communication and empirical methods.
Desirée Schmuck is an Assistant Professor (tenure track) of Digital Media Effects at the School for Mass Communication Research of the KU Leuven. Her research focuses on the effects of digital political communication, stereotypes and prejudice in online media and the effects of digital media use on adolescents and adults.
Christian von Sikorski is an Assistant Professor of Political Psychology (tenure track) and Head of the Political Psychology & Communication Lab (PPC) at the Institute of Communication Psychology and Media Education of the University of Koblenz-Landau. His research focuses on political psychology and political communication with an emphasis on political scandals, as well as terrorism coverage and effects (e.g., intergroup relations, political attitudes).
Claudia Klobasa successfully completed her Master's degree at the Department in 2019. During her studies, she worked as a faculty tutor and coordinated the Department's Buddy Project. Her main research interests lie in the fields of media and advertising effects and political communication.
Helena Knupfer is a predoctoral researcher in the division of Advertising Research and Media Effects (AdME) at the Department of Communication. Her research interests include (right-wing) terrorism coverage and effects as well as food placements in children's movies and TV series.
Melanie Saumer works at the Department of Communication as Professor Jörg Matthes's teaching assistant. Her research interests include media psychology in the context of body perception, the impact of journalism on victim blaming, political communication with a focus on governmental communication and content analyses.