Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects?


6:30 pm - September 23rd 2010

by Sunny Hundal    


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A few days ago, five men were arrested in ‘a plot’ to threaten the Pope.

This is how Sky News first reported it:



This was then clarified to state they were of “Algerian” origin:

The Daily Express didn’t bother pulling any punches with its headline:

Of course the Pope Plot turned out to be false-alarm, but the damage in perception (Muslims = terrorists) was done. The Express issued a correction, hidden so small you could have easily missed it.

* * * *

Around the same time a man was arrested at Schipol airport on suspicion of terrorism.

Here is how Channel 4 News tweeted it:

Why was his Somali background relevant?

The man was released within a day without being charged, but news organisations didn’t bother reporting that with the same gusto.

[Tweet screen-grabs via Anton Vowl]

* * * *

Since when did it become OK for news organisations to start mentioning ethnicities or religions of suspects even if they weren’t charged?

It doesn’t look like this policy is followed across the board for all arrests, or for all ethnicities.

Is it policy to always mention ethnicity of the suspect, or only in certain cases?

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About the author
Sunny Hundal is editor of LC. Also: on Twitter, at Pickled Politics and Guardian CIF.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Media ,Race relations

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Reader comments


Sunny: “Since when did it become OK for news organisations to start mentioning ethnicities or religions of suspects even if they weren’t charged?”

About as long as newspapers have existed is my estimate. In Victorian times, the Free Staters who planted bombs would have been identified as Irish in the same way as IRA terrorists have been described in our lifetimes. The anarchists in Conrad’s The Secret Agent would have been “foreign” or East European. ETA members are normally Basque. Oh, and UK Nazis tend to have white coloured skin.

Identifying suspects by nationality or background *can* provide some background to a story. But I think you have a point. It would be wiser for journalists to say “the suspect is believed to be associated with organisation xyz”.

“Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects?”

Not a clue, Sunny, not a clue.

Tell you what.

Why don’t you ask the guy who wrote “Another White Terrorist Against ‘Non-British’ Caught”?

And why is it OK to mention the gender of suspects for that matter? Or the whereabouts of suspects? What about “a person has been arrested by the authorities of a certain state, which cannot yet be named. Or why bother to report it at all? Why do we need to know anything?

I see you missed the irony of that post Laban. Well done, and thanks for proving my point. Why was that guy just described as “a man”, as opposed to “a white man”?

You’re just too subtle for me, Sunny. Is Muslim an ethnicity, btw ?

If you want my five-pennorth and are genuinely interested in an answer to the question, I imagine the ‘of Somali origin’ is a way of pointing out ‘no, this guy’s not of second generation immigrant origin’ i.e. not home-grown a la the 7/7 bombers. It’s supposed to make us feel better.

4 – perhaps because most of the population are white and therefore peoples’ default assumption is that a “man” or “woman” is likely to be a white man or woman when visualising them.

For the Somali suspect, I did not have a clue what the headline was intended to mean.

On a good day, I can identify Somalia on a map, and every day I understand that Somalia is a predominantly Muslim nation that does not have a government.

So this Somali bloke is identified as being dodgy. Is he dodgy because he is associated with a terrorist organisation or a Somali warlord? Or is it just a mistake when his arabic name is transcribed?

“Since when did it become OK for news organisations to start mentioning ethnicities or religions of suspects even if they weren’t charged?”

A British man of Somali descent.

You can identify the individual as:

“A… man”, “British” and “Of Somali descent”.

Why is it more shocking to you that they chose “of Somali descent” than “British”? Following your logic, the damage to Britain’s international reputation has already been done: Britons = terrorists.

Would it be okay if a local hero who saved 17 small children from a burning building was identified as being “of Somali descent”? Or is it only negative associations (however legitimate) you wish to obscure?

Is “of Somali descent” itself offensive?

And – serious question – would you object to the horrific terror attacks on New York or London being described as “Muslim” atrocities?

The Daily Express headline is just awful. And the Sky News tweet is a bit tactless but the Channel 4 tweet seems fine to me.

10. FlyingRodent

More insidiously, why would anyone use the formulation “terrorist suspects” as opposed to “suspected terrorists”?

The papers may struggle to maintain that whole “innocent until proven guilty” thing, but even the tabloids don’t talk about “rapist suspects”. They have been known to use “murder suspects”, but I’d argue that’s a very different beast to “murderer suspects”.

See Steven Poole, who’s brilliant on this stuff. http://unspeak.net/terrorist-suspects

“Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects?”

Not a clue, Sunny, not a clue.

Tell you what.

Why don’t you ask the guy who wrote “Another White Terrorist Against ‘Non-British’ Caught”?

<<< PMSL

Any chance we can discuss Tony Sewell’s recent statements?

http://blogs.telegraph.co.uk/news/edwest/100055001/black-pupils-and-bad-behaviour-only-a-black-academic-can-state-the-obvious/

Or are you only interested in black men when it suits your agenda?

Good question.

Indeed how much info should be released about any suspects prior to trial?

I don’t know why they do it (to add a bit of colour, so to speak?), but I think it’s fairly normal for any crimes, not just terrorism.

Wild guess, but could it have to do with what information the police release? And the media then reporting what little they have on a hot news story.

Of course it just pushes the question up the food chain. But as Charlieman points out, it’s been done for ever; though it’s probably best not to speculate about organisations involved except negatively and just reports facts such as nationality.

So in this case, Pope + Algerian street cleaners implies probably not Red Hand Commandos; rather than definitely Islamic terrorists or Onyx (or whatever they’re called nowadays) finding exciting new contracting opportunities. Though in the end it turned out to be the Pissing About in the Canteen Tendency.

‘Indeed how much info should be released about any suspects prior to trial?’

Nail, meet head. Information about suspects should be severely limited until after the trial unless such information is needed in the apprehension of suspects. And that goes for all crimes, including rape, though there are many on this site who would operate a double standard.

When news organisations don’t give the ethnicity or religion of the suspect that can make for a seriously confusing story. I remember reading a BBC report about some guy trying to blow up a plane or an airport …. and finding him only described as “a plumber’. WTF, I thought,why would a plumber want to do that? It was only when other reports told me his ethnicity and religion that I was able to guess at his motivation.

As Richard states – default setting with implications. If a media org reports a break-in while the owner was watching television it doesn’t need to tell me that the television was switched on and tuned to a programme. I can work that out for myself.

What you’re really asking is why do media orgs consider reporting ethnicity etc. as relevant to the story; because that’s the story they want to sell. It’s the current narrative that’s been shaped for us and things have to slot neatly into it to produce the story – terrorists are Muslim foreigners so reinforce that at every opportunity.

“Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects?”

Because they want to make the white folk angry. Just like Sunny’s new comrades in BNPlite do.

In many ways it easy to understand the sociopathic sensibilities of Labour and the Express. They want power/money.

But how to understand the gullibility of their followers? That is the real challenge for the left.

20. Just Visiting

But don’t forget the other side of the coin.

The media also have a habit of downplaying facts about the nationality/religion of suspects:

Eg today:

“Canadian man arrested in Sweden after plane bomb threat” – says in the article body:
‘ a man’….. ‘a man’…’a Canadian citizen’…. and then finally, ‘of Pakistani origin’.

Oy yesterday:
Arlington woman sentenced to 10 years in federal prison”
Which makes no mention that she is a Muslim – a downplaying that some newspapers at the time of her arrest also made: “Two in custody after Fort Worth bomb scare “

21. Just Visiting

And in 2008 the head of the BBC warned broadcasters against becoming overly-cautious in their reporting on Islam for fear of causing offence to Muslims….suggested they were being too cautious about reporting Islam.

Saying there was:
“a growing nervousness about discussion about Islam and its relationship to the traditions and values of British and Western society as a whole.”
“In an effort to demonstrate that his remarks were not targeted solely at ensuring that Islam received journalistic scrutiny, Mr Thompson also referring to his decision to broadcast Jerry Springer, The Opera despite an avalanche of complaints from Christians unhappy at the depiction of Jesus in the satire.

“There is no point having a BBC which isn’t prepared to stand up and be counted; which will do everything it can to mitigate potential religious offence; but which will always be forthright in the defence of freedom of speech and of impartiality,” he said

22. Just Visiting
23. Just Visiting
24. Just Visiting

Or regards the BBC again – this time decisions about their fictional output :

BBC Bonekickers drama blasted for showing images of a Muslim being beheaded..by extremist Christian

Whereas the seem to have self-censored on:

BBC drops fictional terror attack to avoid offending Muslims

25. Just Visiting

Or what about this noteworthy UK media coverage (or lack of it) this month:

Reuters report A well-known Australian Muslim cleric has called for the beheading of Dutch anti-Islamic politician Geert Wilders, a newspaper said on Friday.

Compare and contrast that call for beheading by Feiz Muhammad with Pastor Jones’ call for book burning.

So we’d expect lots of media coverage of Feiz Muhammad?

But a google search at UK mainstream media sites reveals

NO mention anywhere on BBC.co.uk (except in the corner of someone’s blog)

Telegraph -1 mention
Guardian – 0
The Times – 0
Daily Mail – 0
Independent – 0

He gets a smattering coverage from Australian media.

A few years ago I did an long interview piece with a local Muslim community leader. We discussed Islam and terrorism and he made what I thought was a very good point.
“When the Irish were bombing London, you reporters did not write “Catholic Terrorists” did you? You did not slur all Catholics with the activities of just a handful of criminals.
“So now you have British-born terrorists bombing London, you’re writing “Muslim terrorists”. Is that right?”

Spot on, I thought and I printed every word because it was such a good point.

But who’s going to listen to one sensible community representative in South Essex when you’ve got Littlejohn to bow down before, eh?

“When the Irish were bombing London, you reporters did not write “Catholic Terrorists” did you? You did not slur all Catholics with the activities of just a handful of criminals.
“So now you have British-born terrorists bombing London, you’re writing “Muslim terrorists”. Is that right?”

Spot on, I thought and I printed every word because it was such a good point.

They were called Irish terrorists. It was an identifying feature. I’m not saying it’s right, just that it’s inevitable a shared identifying feature will be used to identify such people.

I think they are getting better though (the local media anyway) in not pointing out that the criminal was ‘black’ or ‘Asian’ or whatever. And that’s correct if you wouldn’t say he was ‘white’ (or maybe, red-haired?) – and let’s face it, unless you’re asking the public to look out for someone on the run, why would you?

However some of the nationals do not miss an opportunity to scare their readers with tales of ‘Moslem terrorists’. And of course if the story turns out to be untrue the truth will turn up on page 94 in 4pt font.


Reactions: Twitter, blogs
  1. Liberal Conspiracy

    Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects? http://bit.ly/9rmuFe

  2. winston k moss

    RT @libcon: Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects? http://bit.ly/9rmuFe

  3. sunny hundal

    Why do media organisations report ethnicity of terrorist suspects? Do they have guidelines? http://t.co/nAOxRAg

  4. Larry Gardiner

    RT @sunny_hundal: Why do media organisations report ethnicity of terrorist suspects? Do they have guidelines? http://t.co/nAOxRAg

  5. sunny hundal

    @CharlieBeckett Charlie what do you think of this? http://t.co/nAOxRAg – do news orgs have guidelines on this?

  6. Nicholas Stewart

    Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects? http://j.mp/c3F9U4

  7. Dilwyn’s Daily Digest – Friday 24th September 2010 « Aled-Dilwyn Fisher

    […] Liberal Conspiracy’s Sunny Hundal wonders why the media think the ethnic background of terrorist suspects is always relevant. […]

  8. IGSS Intel-Sec Watch

    Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects …: Around the same time a man was arrested at Schipol a… http://bit.ly/9Br1Tq

  9. Pucci Dellanno

    RT @libcon: Why do media orgs report ethnicity of terrorist suspects? http://bit.ly/9rmuFe





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