Why newspaper headlines can change the way we travel

When you step into an airport, you know that an Arabic sounding name, a fez over your head can quickly trigger the hidden Arab/Muslim buzzer.
Sunday 29/07/2018
Travellers arrive at the international terminal of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (AFP)
Keep calm. Travellers arrive at the international terminal of O’Hare International Airport in Chicago. (AFP)

Research by the University of Alabama, covering the period 2006-15, states that terror attacks by Muslim extremists receive 357% more coverage in US media than attacks perpetrated by non-Muslims.

Within the scope of the same study, attacks by Muslim terrorists get on average 105 headlines while those by non-Muslims only 15.

Muslim extremists must be the only group that can boost its media coverage 357% more than average without the help of a PR company. In fact, it takes an abhorrent crime perpetrated by someone of a different ethnic and religious group than us to achieve that kind of dubious distinction.

Erin M. Kearns, who led the research at the University of Alabama, says the amplification of the Islamic terror factor carries policy implications beyond the disproportionate fear of Muslims.

“This misperception can create a feedback loop of incorrect information fuelling prejudice and discrimination. Moreover, such misperceptions may prevent the acknowledgement and addressing of other pressing security threats that have a factually rooted basis,” she says.

The Guardian commented that “the disparity in media coverage is particularly out of sync with the reality given that white and right-wing terrorists carried out nearly twice as many terrorist attacks as Muslim extremists between 2008 and 2016.”

Regardless of whether the lads at the US Department of Homeland Security are misled by the disproportionate focus on Muslims, media coverage of terrorism and terrorist incidents can have quite an effect on modern travel.

There are no public statistics for the reasons for deportation of Arab/Muslim travellers from Western airports (by reason of suspicion) but you can bet that the number of deportees from that particular religious and ethnic group rises when security-related anxieties flare up. Adding to the legitimate concern for caution, terror incidents in newspaper headlines can sour the mood of many people these days.

When you step into an airport, you know that an Arabic sounding name, a fez over your head can quickly trigger the hidden Arab/Muslim buzzer. You know as well that you will be entitled to even more special attention at first sight if it is mentioned somewhere in your passport that your parents were teachers or even preachers in Tripoli, Sana’a or Sudan. A place of birth could be a damning detail whatever your parents were doing when bringing you to life.

So whatever the reason, you know that you have to stand ready for that extra search before boarding.

The reason is that you tend to better meet the criteria for “random vetting” — a totally different thing from profiling, of course — than the regular violent white supremacist.

Let me give you a tip: If you happen to be carrying a winter coat during an unseasonably warm autumn day, like this writer once did, airport security officers will probably reward you with some extra attention. The heavy apparel you are carrying will briefly change hands so the experts can examine it more closely.

Cross-cultural gaps work both ways though. If you are a Westerner who occasionally dares to fly aboard airlines from Muslim countries you might also have second thoughts about your foolhardy choice as soon as the pilot announces to passengers that the plane will be arriving at destination “Insha’Allah” in 2 hours and 30 minutes. “What did he just say?” you are tempted to wonder out loud.

The usually very tolerant and open-minded civil person that lives in you is tempted to ask the passenger sitting next to you why did the pilot just invoke the name of God in Arabic. Was he discussing plans for the afterlife or was he only unsure of reaching the destination? “God willing” does not seem to sound that good in Arabic.

At airports and on aeroplanes these days, you increasingly have to learn the art of denying anxiety even if it grips you through no fault of your own. The problem could be the reputation pinned to your ethnic and religious group or the too many nightmare scenarios you read about in magazines and newspapers.

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