What is Terrorism (according to the News)? How the German Press Selectively Labels Political Violence as "Terrorism"


Baghdad, Christchurch or Paris: Over the last years, many cities were the location of extremist attacks – but only some incidents were covered as “terrorism”. Journalists selectively attach the label to particular acts of political violence. This study analyses how characteristics of attacks and their perpetrators influence whether news media portray incidents as terrorism. Based on attacks between 2012 and 2018 (N=86,668) and their coverage in the German press (N=5411), the study finds that highly lethal incidents in Western countries are more likely to be called terrorism. Moreover, news more often portrays violence by Islamist extremists as terrorism than attacks by right- or left-wing extremists. Small or inconsistent effects emerge when comparing violence by lone actors to those by groups and domestic to international terrorism. The study illustrates that news is highly selective in which acts of political violence are presented as terrorism, which may foster stereotypes and prevent policy responses towards different forms of extremism.