USA First Look

Journalists push back against Trump's claim that terror acts go unreported

Speaking to US Central Command yesterday, President Trump suggested that the US news media was failing to report terrorist attacks for 'reasons of their own.'

St. Charles, La., Parish Sheriff Greg Champagne, the president of the National Sheriffs Association, listens (at l.) as President Trump speaks during a meeting with county sheriffs in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017.
Evan Vucci/AP
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President Trump’s assertion that terrorist attacks go unreported is being challenged by journalists from around the world.

Speaking to US Central Command in Tampa, Fla. on Monday, Mr. Trump suggested that terrorist attacks are so frequent that the media has stopped reporting on them. “You’ve seen what happened in Paris and Nice,” he told military leaders and troops. “All over Europe it’s happening. It’s gotten to a point where it’s not even being reported.”

Trump further indicated that the press was deliberately choosing not to report on these attacks, saying, “In many cases, the very, very dishonest press doesn’t want to report it. They have their reasons and you understand that.” And on Monday evening, the White House released a list of 78 attacks that it said went unreported or underreported.

The comments – and the list – have drawn pushback from journalists across print, online, and broadcast media. The outlets overwhelmingly challenged the claim that events went unreported by pointing to their own coverage, while some objected to what they see as Trump’s implication that the media is complicit with terrorists.

"We have brave colleagues who everyday are taking big risks to cover these stories.... The New York Times this weekend had an outstanding piece of reporting about how ISIS has been reaching out, is more involved in some attacks in Europe and abroad," Washington Post columnist David Ignatius said on CNN's "The Lead" on Monday in response to Trump’s statement.

The list of unreported and underreported terror attacks follows Trump’s temporary ban on travelers and refugees from seven majority-Muslim countries, a ban he said would help prevent terrorist attacks. (The ban is currently on hold, following a ruling by a Seattle judge on Friday, though the Department of Justice has appealed the ruling). 

The underreporting of terror attacks became part of the conversation when White House senior adviser Kellyanne Conway attempted to justify the ban by reference to a “Bowling Green massacre” which she said had gone unreported. Though this massacre never occurred – the two Iraqis arrested there in 2011 never committed an attack in the United States – and Ms. Conway later said she had misspoken, the incident may have inspired Trump’s assertion that attacks are not being reported.

A White House official said that the 78 attacks listed were underreported incidents “executed or inspired by ISIS” from September 2014 onwards. Heavily reported incidents like those in Paris; Orlando; San Bernadino, Calif.; and Nice, France all made the list, however.

Several media outlets took the list and critiqued it by pointing to their own coverage. USA Today, for instance, wrote:

During the period in question, USA TODAY reported on the vast majority of the incidents cited on the list. Many of the stories about the major attacks at home and abroad appeared on the front page of USA TODAY print and digital editions.

The BBC produced a list of all 78 attacks, linking to its own coverage of the incidents. It also mentions those cases on the list – including Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in January 2015, and Paris in April 2015 – where there are no recorded instances of a terrorist attack, and suggests alternate incidents – such as arrests – to which the White House might be referring.

Washington Post correspondent Philip Bump took a different tack, suggesting that not every attack made the news as a result of limited news resources:

Filtering what to cover is very different than suppressing information. On any given day, local newspapers and news broadcasts decide what to spend resources on.

Numerous media noted that the list included only terrorist acts considered to have Islamic motives, while excluding events like the recent attack on a mosque in Quebec City and the Charleston, S.C., shooting by Dylann Roof, motivated by race.

Though the president’s criticism of news media is nothing new, some also see the comments as signaling a shift in his relationship with the press as he tries to cement himself as a “tough on terror” president.

“With his comments on Monday, Trump implied that the media is complicit in making terrorists successful,” writes The Washington Post’s Mr. Bump. “He’s never before tried to push the media into the 'against us' circle alongside those who commit acts of terrorism – at least, not so explicitly.”