"Lone wolf" really is code for "white" when the media talks about mass shooters

A new study finds that the term "lone wolf" really is used as code for "white" gunmen

By Matthew Rozsa

Published October 17, 2017 8:56AM (EDT)

Police officers stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino in Las Vegas, Oct. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/John Locher)
Police officers stand at the scene of a shooting near the Mandalay Bay resort and casino in Las Vegas, Oct. 1, 2017. (AP Photo/John Locher)

When it comes to describing a mass shooter, the media has a distinct racial bias.

The term "lone wolf" was 10 times more likely to be used about a white mass shooter than a non-white mass shooter, according to a study by Quartz. By contrast, non-white mass shooters were more than three times as likely to be labeled as "lone gunmen" and almost three times as likely to be described as having "acted alone." The one term that appeared to be used roughly an equal amount of time between the races was "lone shooter."

There was another term that appeared to have racialized connotations: "radicalized." In the Quartz study — which analyzed the coverage from six networks of every mass shooting in which the perpetrator's race was identified since Sandy Hook in 2012 — it was determined that no white mass shooter was ever referred to as radical. By contrast, the word "radical" was used 33 times when the killer was non-white.

The term "terrorism" was also used in a distinctly racialized way, with the Quartz study finding that it appeared four times more often when describing non-white mass shooters than white mass shooters. On the other hand, white mass shooters were far more likely to have their actions described as motivated by a "hate crime" than their nonwhite counterparts.

One intriguing data point in the survey was the breakdown in how mass shooters' family members were covered based on race. Although non-white mass shooters were three times more likely to have the media cover their wives than white mass shooters, the white mass shooters far surpassed the non-white mass shooters when it came to media coverage of every other possible relative: Fathers, mothers, brothers, girlfriends and family members.

Ever since Paddock was widely branded as a "lone wolf" by the media, there has been a heated debate over whether that term was being used for racist reasons.

"The real trouble with all this contagious indignation over Paddock’s ‘white privilege’ is that in a country with a real racism problem, it seems so terribly misplaced," wrote Mary Wakefield, who served as an official in President Barack Obama's administration.

Conversely, many on social media immediately noticed the fact that Paddock was being described as a "lone wolf" instead of as a "terrorist" and jumped on the perceived racism of the media's terminological preferences.

It turns out that, statistically speaking, the people who saw racism in the use of the term "lone wolf" had the facts on their side.

Matthew Rozsa

Matthew Rozsa is a staff writer for Salon. He holds an MA in History from Rutgers University-Newark and is ABD in his PhD program in History at Lehigh University. His work has appeared in Mic, Quartz and MSNBC.

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Gun Control Las Vegas Shooting Mass Shootings Race Stephen Paddock