Illustration: Susie Liu

On 15 April, two bombs exploded at the finish line of the annual Boston Marathon, killing three and wounding over 260. Of course, the extensive media coverage of the incident means many people already know this. Stories with headlines like “Lawmakers call Boston bombing an ‘act of terror’” and “Terrorism and the Boston Marathon bombings” have been almost unavoidable no matter which news agency people choose to follow.

Indeed, ‘terrorism’ has been the word in spite of the fact that the events that unfolded at the Boston Marathon should not have been presumptuously deemed as such.

Terrorism—”premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents”.[i].

In spite of having little to no information about the true nature of the attack on Boston, trusted sources such as CNN and Fox News consider it appropriate to use one of the most powerful and emotionally charged words in their arsenal. ‘Terrorism’ was not used to describe the Aurora Theatre Shooting; nor was it used in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting. None of the three incidents, as far as the media conveys, were politically motivated. None were carried out by subnational groups or clandestine agents. So why is only the most recent of three atrocities branded as an act of terror? Perhaps it is because the attack was perpetrated by Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev: practitioners of Islam.

In a society where the words ‘Islamic’ and ‘terrorism’ are routinely used in the same sentence, it is easy to see how irresponsibly splashing the word ‘terrorism’ across the front page of a newspaper could make people want to read more about the Tsarnaevs’ possible Jihadist connections: to keep the people on the edge of their seats while they wait for the next breaking story to emerge. This has led agencies like CNN to irrelevantly dig up and report any and all information regarding the suspects’ faith, including an hour-long report about a history of deleted religious videos on a deceased suspect’s YouTube channel. All the while, important issues like the past mental health of the suspects (a focal point in the reporting of Aurora and Sandy Hook) and actual developments in the investigation (including the FBI’s questionable sidestep of the Miranda Rights) were pushed back.

Even when not misusing the word outright like the writers at CNN (“Terrorism Strikes Boston Marathon”), news agencies seem to think that putting quotation marks around the word ‘terrorism’ and using weasel words like ‘terror’ to suggest extremism is a better, liability-free way of exploiting the Islamophobia sweeping North America and gaining a larger following.

Yellow journalism—”journalism that exploits, distorts, or exaggerates the news to create sensations and attract readers”.[ii].

Until the Boston terror trial actually comes to a verdict and the actions of the Tsarnaevs are indeed confirmed to be terrorism, followers of the news should take care in interpreting any and all stories about ‘terrorism’. In the aftermath of two explosions which devastated a world-famous foot race, the only thing the media seems to bring to focus is a different kind of race altogether.

[i] U.S. Code, Section 2656f(d), Title 22

[ii] The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language