Between Sensationalism, Islamophobia and Slanders against Catalan Independence: How Spanish Media Reported on the Barcelona Attack

Published: 31 August 2017

Country: Spain

By Giulia Dessì

front_pages_Spanish_newspapersOn the morning of Friday 18 August, the day after the Barcelona and Cambrils attacks, customers who wanted to buy a newspaper at the Caprabo supermarket in Alp, a town in Catalonia, were left almost empty-handed. “In respect for the victims of yesterday’s attack in Barcelona, we will not sell any newspapers whose front pages are sensationalist and explicit. We apologise for the inconvenience,” said a sign taped on the empty shelf.


Despite the advice by the Civil Guard and the National Police not to share macabre images of the attack, most of the front pages and the inside pages of the main newspapers in Spain were replete with morbid images of corpses and people in distress. El Mundo, El Periódico, and ABC, among others, have been attacked on social media for their lack of sensitivity.

The lifeless bodies on Las Ramblas pavement were used to illustrate the attack, failing to find a balance between the duty to inform the public and the respect for the dignity of victims and their families and friends.

Soon after the attack, the information conveyed by reporters was based on conjectures, rumours and opinions not backed by any evidence. “This time, the security forces have promptly informed the public, while the main news media boosted disinformation and confusion among the population,” said Dardo Gómez, of the Spanish Journalists Federation (FeSP), in an interview by the Media Diversity Institute. “The news media interviewed “witnesses” or “specialists” to whom they asked suggestive questions implying already a certain answer, or they recurred to columnists who did speculations without having any real information.”

Inaccurate relations between Salafists, terrorists, and Wahhabists, were broadcast by TV hosts desperate to find so-called experts to fill many hours of programmes, from morning to night, devoted to the attack.

Television offered a constant coverage of the aftermath of the attack, grappling to morbid details and exclusive testimonies, feeding TV viewers’ addiction to breaking news, and fuelling their anger and fear. In doing so, reporters and TV hosts also helped the attackers to achieve the goal of terrorising the public. In the words of Michelle Ward Ghetti, of Southern University Law Center, “television puts everyone at the scene of the crime, helpless to do anything, engendering feelings of anxiety and fear – the terrorist’s instrument of coercion.”


While waiting for the official analysis of the media monitoring results, Pedro Rojo, president of the Fundación Al Fanar in Madrid which founded the Observatory of Islamophobia in the Media, shared with the Media Diversity Institute his initial impressions and compared them with the regular pattern of Islamophobia in the press.

Of the 1,400 articles of six national newspapers in the first semester of 2017 analysed by the Observatory, about 70 percent have Islamophobic traits (that is they provoke fear towards Islam and Muslims) and 82 percent report on negative issues.


“It seems that the tendency, in the media coverage of the attacks, is the same that what we see generally, that is three types of articles with islamophobia,” said Rojo.

The first type includes articles – mainly opinion pieces – that contain intentional Islamophobic stances. The second type consists of articles written with little knowledge of Islam and its terminology. And the third type comprises articles whose way of writing contains generalisations, metaphors, euphemisms on Islam, often linking terrorists with refugees.

The second and the third type of articles can be found in the main newspapers. Spain does not have a thriving print tabloid industry. Tabloid-style news can be found online, but these websites do not have a large readership. In the most circulated newspapers, such as El Pais, however, it is not rare to find news stories with generalisations, incorrect terminology, and polarisation using terms such as “us and them”. In general, the main newspapers offer a wide range of articles, publishing intolerant articles side by side with inclusive ones.

On the same day when Rojo’s piece condemning islamophobia was published on El Mundo, an Islamophobic article was also published. La Razon, right wing newspaper whose articles are often racist and Islamophobic, published articles written by Muslim authors as well as a piece by the Observatory which was strongly stating the responsibility of the media to spread prejudices.

When both Rojo and the editor of the right wing La Razon, Francisco Marhuenda, were hosted on the same TV programme on La Sexta TV, the editor himself disclosed that most of the articles they publish are Islamophobic, and welcomed the Observatory’s staff to go to his newsroom and help them change what they can.

The Observatory, which with its activities with journalists and editors wants to help the press to make responsible journalism, accepted. “We do not want to attack, not stigmatise, but rather raise awareness,” said Rojo.

Hate Speech

While newspapers and TV often gave space to generalisations and incorrect information, most of the explicit hate speech against Muslims was channelled on social media.

Journalist and author Isabel San Sebastián wrote in a Tweet: “we already kicked you out of here once, and we’ll do it again,” referring to the Reconquista of the Iberian Peninsula by the Christian Kingdoms from the Muslim Moors.

After receiving criticism for this xenophobic sentence, San Sebastián replied that in Spain islamophobia does not exist: “I see that there are many do-gooders who are more worried about a non-existing ‘islamophobia’ rather than about a murderous Islam. I am not. It’s a war! Let’s win!”

Catalan Independence

Some of the main newspapers in Spain, most of which are Madrid-based, have also fabricated false cause-effect links between the policies of the Catalonia and the attack, with the goal of discrediting the independence stances of the region.

One editorial piece on El Mundo the day after the attack condemned the immigration policies of Catalonia, “which have given priority to the electoral interests, tied with the independentism, over the national security.”

Other media professionals used more aggressive tones. In an opinion piece titled “Death and lie”, Hermann Tertsch, columnist of the newspaper ABC, called the attack “the most brutal, global, and murderous action of turismophobia”, referring to the recent measures of Barcelona to control and better manage the number of tourists in the city. And he labelled the Catalan nationalism and the Spanish lefts as “comrades” of the authors of the attack for “having shared” with them “loathing of the West.”

The level of these accusations against the Catalan nationalism was so severe that it prompted the reaction of several press associations. The Sindicat de Periodistes de Catalunya / Sindicat de Professionals de la Comunicació (SPC) released a statement condemning the ideological divisions, asking the media decision makers to “focus on factual and rigorous information, as the citizens deserve and are able to make their own conclusions on how yesterday’s criminal attack can affect the political sphere in Catalonia.”

Muslim Voices

Next to editorials and opinion makers criticising the “open immigration” policies of Catalonia, or news articles associating refugees with terrorists, newspapers and TV gave also space to Muslim journalists and representatives.


The presence of Muslim voices is the main change that Rojo sees in the way media covered the attack. “The people they [TV hosts] have been bringing are Spanish Muslims, and this is important.” “Before,” Rojo continued, “the main representation was ‘the immigrant’, such as a woman with many children who does not speak Spanish.”

Last Sunday, thousands of local Muslims marched in Las Ramblas to condemn terrorism, chanting in unison: “I am Muslim! Not a terrorist!” supported and saluted by neighbours and passers-by. “The people of Barcelona and Catalonia reacted in a reflexive way, condemning the messages of hate, including a small rally of a far-right wing which was forced out by the neighbours of Las Ramblas,” commented Dardo Gómez of the Spanish Journalists Federation (FeSP).

Yet, despite positive message of solidarity and a rejection of Islamophobia by the Catalan authorities, a spike in anti-Muslim incidents has been registered by SOS Barcelona – from graffiti containing death threats on a mosque in Montblanc to videos on social media calling for the expulsion of all Muslims.

Journalists have a great responsibility, to fuel divisions or encourage understanding among communities. As Pedro Rojo said on El Mundo, “can you imagine the social perception of a community, a business, an institution, a football club… that is spoken badly of 80 percent of the time?”