Fact-check: Are terror attacks underreported by the media?

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White House spokesman Sean Spicer holds a press briefing at the White House in Washington February 7, 2017.  REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque - RTX301Q4

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JUDY WOODRUFF: One charge the president and his team have raised repeatedly in recent days is his claim that the news media either ignore or undercovers terrorist incidents.

On Monday, the president himself said — quote — “The dishonest press doesn’t want to report on terrorist attacks.” That was followed by the White House issuing a list of attacks that it contends didn’t get enough press attention.

Philip Bump, who reports for The Washington Post, has been looking into the accuracy of the president’s claims. And he joins me now from New York.

So, Philip, just to be clear, what exactly did the president himself say? And distinguish that from what his press secretary said.

PHILIP BUMP, The Washington Post: And it’s an absolutely critical distinction.

So, the president, speaking to the United States Central Command, said that the media wasn’t reporting, that, for whatever reason, implying that there was some bias involved, the media wasn’t reporting about terror attacks.

The White House’s press secretary then came back and modified that, tried to soften it and say, well, what he meant to say is, these things have been underreported. That was the point at which they issued this list of 78 attacks that occurred between 2014 and 2016.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, you went over this list of 78 different attacks that they put down and handed out. And what did you find?

PHILIP BUMP: I didn’t find any that hadn’t actually been reported. And that’s the bar that the president set. That’s important to remember. He said they had not been reported.

Each of these 78, I had found had been reported. ThinkProgress, a liberal site, went back. They found 17,000 news articles in the first week after each of these attacks covering all these attacks, 17,000 articles covering these 78 attacks.

So it’s certainly the case that these things had been reported. Underreported, of course, is very subjective, and that’s really where the administration right now is putting its emphasis on making that point.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, just to back up a little bit, there were a number of terrorist attacks in here that were clearly covered. In fact, some would argue they were overcovered, from Orlando to San Bernardino to the Paris attacks, Brussels, and so on.

PHILIP BUMP: That’s exactly right.

And I think that that’s why it’s very safe to assume that the motivation for releasing this list wasn’t necessarily to make this point about being underreported. Yes, to include on this list something like the San Bernardino attack or the Orlando attack, which got saturation coverage for days on end, justifiably, to include those on a list of things being underreported seems to suggest the point of the list was in fact the list itself, in that there were all these terror attacks that the administration at this moment, with this court battle, going wants to make people aware that terrorism still exists as a big problem.

JUDY WOODRUFF: But, Philip Bump, you also did find some that didn’t get that much coverage. Most of them occurred overseas, is that right, outside the United States?

PHILIP BUMP: That’s exactly right.

Yes, so the scale of the attacks here range from the attack in Paris, which was a multipronged attack, at a soccer stadium and a music hall and cafes, to stabbing attacks on people — military officials in Egypt, for example.

There was a huge range of what is included in this. A lot of the attacks, no one was killed, not necessarily that that should be the standard by which we say a terrorist attack is good or bad. But the fact that all of these things were packaged together as one whole, suggesting this is, therefore, a threat to the United States, which was the clear implication, I think is worth noting.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, the bottom line is that what the president stated is not accurate, that the press has ignored most terrorist attacks.

But, to go beyond that, you point out in the article this concept of working the refs. The White House approach to talking to the press about what it’s going to do or not going to do in covering something that’s coming up, explore that with us for a second.


So there’s this idea of working with the refs, essentially looking as the media as being referees. And it’s this concept that carries over from sports, obviously.

But the idea is to try and shape the behavior of the media by criticizing the media in a very deliberate way. And so what Donald Trump said, I don’t think that this was planned. I think he was irritated in the moment at the media, made these comments. I can’t obviously say that with certainty.

But I think what Sean Spicer, the press secretary did, was very strategic. And he said, this is an opportunity for us to try and get this list of 78 attacks out in from of the media, and at the same time get the media to focus from here on out about the extent to which they cover terror attacks.

Obviously, in this moment, in this political moment, it is beneficial to the administration to have this perception that there are a lot of terror attacks that are going underreported that are happening all the time. This is a way, I think, that Spicer realized of getting the media to be more attentive to, should we or should we not cover this thing that we might not otherwise have covered?

JUDY WOODRUFF: And there is also the question that’s been raised about how much terrorist — how coverage of terrorist attacks or attempted attacks raises what we know is the fear level in this country, this idea that the more terrorism, terrorist attacks are in the news, no matter how small or how large they may be, how many incidents, the more there is a sense of fear that begins to permeate the public.

PHILIP BUMP: That’s exactly right.

And it’s important to remember that the entire point of a terror attack is to terrorize. And the only way you can terrorize is if the news media, if people in general hype the idea that there is a lot of terrorism going on and that there is a reason to be afraid.

So there is clearly a balance that any elected official has to hold to between whether or not you emphasize terror or whether or not you downplay terrorism. Today, during the daily press briefing, Sean Spicer tried to sort of play it both ways. He suggested that it was important that we talk about all these things, but that the result of that would be that people would feel safer under President Trump.

I’m not sure he can have that cake and eat it too.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, it certainly was important to go down and look at this list that the White House put out of 78 incidents. And your reporting was important.

Philip Bump, we thank you.

PHILIP BUMP: Thanks. Sure.

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