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The Weight of Our Words

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Sometimes it can feel like there is a terrorist attack on the news every other week. But how much attention an attack receives has a lot to do with one factor: the religion of the perpetrator. <em>David McNew /AFP/Getty Images</em>

This week, we look at the language we use around race and religion, and what it says about the culture we live in.

In 2014, two shooting sprees occurred six months apart in busy American cities. They had uncanny similarities: in both events, multiple people were shot and killed, including two police officers. Both ended with suicides, and both involved ominous, anti-government messages left on social media. But one crime received nearly five times as much coverage as the other one. The key difference? One shooter, Ishmael Brinsley, was Muslim, and the other shooters, a white supremacist couple named Jerad and Amanda Miller, were not.

New research finds that print journalists are about four times more likely to report on terror attacks when the perpetrator is Muslim. In fact, according to Erin Kearns and colleagues at Georgia State University, "a perpetrator who is not Muslim would have to kill on average about seven more people to receive the same amount of coverage as a perpetrator who's Muslim."

But there are disturbing implications for the way Americans perceive Muslims, and the way Muslims perceive themselves. As we'll discover, reporters (and all of us, of course,) are battling psychological biases about members of groups who are unfamiliar.

"These biases are not just simply something that's in our head," social psychologist Muniba Saleem tells us. "But they are in fact affecting our behaviors and our public policy decisions towards Muslims."

We'll also look at how President Trump's rhetoric is changing the way Americans talk. It's based on the work of Chris Crandall, a researcher at the University of Kansas who studies prejudice. In 2016, he found that Trump's disparaging comments about Muslims, Mexicans, and even overweight people may have altered basic social norms.

"The election changed people's notion of what was tolerable," says Crandall.

This week's episode was produced by Rhaina Cohen, Lucy Perkins, and Maggie Penman. Our team includes Jenny Schmidt, Parth Shah, Thomas Lu and Laura Kwerel. Our supervising producer is Tara Boyle.

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