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Crazy or cunning? Mainstream media can't decide

Speaking tour in Iowa organized by Veterans for Peace and co-sponsored by AFSC.
Speaking tour in Iowa organized by Veterans for Peace and co-sponsored by AFSC. Photo: Jon Krieg / AFSC 2015

Orlando, Dhaka, Istanbul, Baghdad, Saudi Arabia

There have been so many different acts of mass political violence in the past three weeks it's been hard to keep count. Which of these attacks were caused by which groups is still up for debate. But one thing remains the same: News outlets cover these groups, particularly ISIS, as either crazy or cunning, and sometimes both. 

Crazy or cunning? Maybe both/and?

In our recent report on how media cover violent extremism, we found that about two-thirds of the articles in our sample framed extremist groups like ISIS as totally irrational: They used adjectives like crazy, psychopathic or barbaric to frame these groups. 

 Media outlets cover extremist groups as crazy about two-thirds of the time

Another two-thirds of the articles framed these groups as rational, describing such groups as highly organized, cunning or thoughtful. In about one-third of cases, we saw an overlap of these frames, meaning that one out of every three articles used both frames at least once in the same articles. 

Media cover extremists as coldly calculating about two-thirds of the time


Our goal in documenting these frames is not to point out that some coverage is wrong and some coverage is right, or even that some is conflicted (though we did find that to be the case). The point is to show how media frame these actors as only fit for a violent response. If ISIS recruits are totally crazy, then the only language they will respond to is violence. If ISIS leades are at the helm of a state-like organization with its own military or government structures, then we must respond to them with the same kind of violence that they perpetrate.

The problem with these frames is that they make U.S. military intervention seem like the obvious, even necessary response to ISIS and similar groups. It doesn't help that U.S. military intervention was by far the most-covered form of U.S. intervention abroad. Yet, we know from data as well as our own experience over the past century that the reverse is actually true: Nonviolence is more effective in the long-run than violence.

What do you think about the state of coverage of violent extremism? Tell us about it on Facebook or in the comments.


About the Author

AREAS OF EXPERTISE: Communications research | Analytics | Social inequality. Beth leads AFSC’s messaging and opinion research, which she uses to develop evidence-based communications guidance for advocates and citizens to ‘change the narrative’ on war and violence. Prior to AFSC, Beth’s research and professional work focused on health inequality in the Americas.

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