Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations

The Weight of Our Words

Sometimes it can feel like there is a terrorist attack on the news every other week. But how much attention an attack receives has a lot to do with one factor: the religion of the perpetrator. <em>David McNew /AFP/Getty Images</em>
David McNew
/
AFP/Getty Images
Sometimes it can feel like there is a terrorist attack on the news every other week. But how much attention an attack receives has a lot to do with one factor: the religion of the perpetrator. David McNew /AFP/Getty Images

This week, we look at the language we use around race and religion, and what it says about the culture we live in.

In 2014, two shooting sprees occurred six months apart in busy American cities. They had uncanny similarities: in both events, multiple people were shot and killed, including two police officers. Both ended with suicides, and both involved ominous, anti-government messages left on social media. But one crime received nearly five times as much coverage as the other one. The key difference? One shooter, Ishmael Brinsley, was Muslim, and the other shooters, a white supremacist couple named Jerad and Amanda Miller, were not.

These biases are not just simply something that's in our head, but they are in fact affecting our behaviors and our public policy decisions towards Muslims.

New research finds that print journalists are about four times more likely to report on terror attacks when the perpetrator is Muslim. In fact, according to Erin Kearns and colleagues at Georgia State University, "a perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about seven more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who's Muslim."

But there are disturbing implications for the way Americans perceive Muslims, and the way Muslims perceive themselves. As we'll discover, reporters (and all of us, of course,) are battling psychological biases about members of groups who are unfamiliar.

"These biases are not just simply something that's in our head," social psychologist Muniba Saleem tells us. "But they are in fact affecting our behaviors and our public policy decisions towards Muslims."

We'll also look at how President Trump's rhetoric is changing the way Americans talk. It's based on the work of Chris Crandall, a researcher at the University of Kansas who studies prejudice. In 2016, he found that Trump's disparaging comments about Muslims, Mexicans, and even overweight people may have altered basic social norms.

"The election changed people's notion of what was tolerable," says Crandall.

This week's episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen, Lucy Perkins, and Maggie Penman. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Shankar Vedantam is the host and creator of Hidden Brain. The Hidden Brain podcast receives more than three million downloads per week. The Hidden Brain radio show is distributed by NPR and featured on nearly 400 public radio stations around the United States.
Tara Boyle is the supervising producer of NPR's Hidden Brain. In this role, Boyle oversees the production of both the Hidden Brain radio show and podcast, providing editorial guidance and support to host Shankar Vedantam and the shows' producers. Boyle also coordinates Shankar's Hidden Brain segments on Morning Edition and other NPR shows, and oversees collaborations with partners both internal and external to NPR. Previously, Boyle spent a decade at WAMU, the NPR station in Washington, D.C. She has reported for The Boston Globe, and began her career in public radio at WBUR in Boston.
Jennifer Schmidt is a senior producer for Hidden Brain. She is responsible for crafting the complex stories that are told on the show. She researches, writes, gathers field tape, and develops story structures. Some highlights of her work on Hidden Brain include episodes about the causes of the #MeToo movement, how diversity drives creativity, and the complex psychology of addiction.
Rhaina Cohen is a producer and editor for NPR's Enterprise Storytelling unit, working across Embedded, Invisibilia, and Rough Translation.