The difficulty of getting people to read about Lahore

You’ll see people complaining that the media doesn’t give as much prominence to terrorism atrocities outside of Western Europe as it does to those that take place in cities like Paris or Brussels. The data shows it is much, much harder to get people to read those stories.

My heart goes out to the families affected by the bombings in the last couple of days in Pakistan and Iraq. As a father of young children myself, I struggle to comprehend the callous viciousness of deliberately targeting children playing football in Al-Asriya, or out for a day with their families in Lahore.

And social media is littered today with people complaining that the media has not been giving these stories the attention they deserve.

It’s undoubtedly true that there is less coverage, but it is also regretfully true that there seems to be less of an audience.

It’s a Bank Holiday today in the UK, and I’m not working, but I’m also a complete news geek so obviously started the day with listening to the Radio 4 Today programme and with a quick look at the Guardian’s real-time web stats tool, Ophan.

I was struck by the fact that despite leading the site with several stories about the Lahore attacks, it was not our most read story.

Screenshot of the Guardian iOS app this morning.

In fact, Lahore didn’t even make the top five most read. I can’t give exact figures of course, but this is the relative real-time popularity of the top ten most read stories on theguardian.com at the time I checked the figures — 8:45am this morning.

It’s just a snapshot, and I’m sure that the Pakistan attack story will continue to be in the top ten throughout the day as other things pop in and out, but at that point in time it was being out-performed by stories about a logic puzzle, the ruins of Palmyra, a woman having lots and lots of sex but being dissatisfied about it and John Kerry’s comments on the US Presidential race.

And to add a little bit of extra context, lurking at #10 in that list was a year old piece about Cee-Lo Green’s attitude to rape victims, which seems to have suddenly gained a new lease of life on Reddit somewhere. It’s an indicator that it isn’t always your homepage choice, and sometimes not even your own social media channels, that can be huge drivers of traffic.

By contrast, on the day of the Brussels attacks, five of the top ten most read stories on the site that day were about Brussels, with the live blog having millions and millions of views.

Now I’d never use stats like this to determine editorial priority. The Lahore attack was despicable, and is clearly the world’s biggest story today. I’d always run it in the #1 slot.

But what you will probably see over the next few days is that there will be a lot less follow up coverage from the media as a whole than there was follow up coverage of Brussels.

In part, for us in Western Europe, that will be about logistics. It is a lot easier – and cheaper – to send a couple of reporters over to Brussels than it would be to get a team into Lahore.

I find it a bit depressing really, but unsurprising.

It’s harder to get mainstream reader empathy and interest in terrorism attacks that occur further from our shores. Many, many of our readers will have visited Brussels or Paris. Far fewer will have ever ventured to Pakistan.

For most of the UK’s population, Europe’s capitals are much closer culturally and logistically.

You only have to see how sites like the Mirror squeezed a whole story out of Belgian international captain Vincent Kompany making two tweets about the Brussels attack. He plays for Manchester City. We know him. To date the article has been shared over 2,000 times.

If Zeshan Rehman put out a statement about Lahore today, you’d probably have to Google him.*

I don’t think the overwhelming whiteness of our newsrooms helps us here. It means that these stories have less impact on us personally as a team. It means it is harder to have a wide range of contacts in the region affected. It means that language and culture are a barrier to the journalist understanding the situation, let alone conveying that to the reader.

It’s a seemingly intractable problem though. Social media is littered with people accusing the media of not covering Lahore with the same kind of depth that was afforded to Brussels. But as an industry we just can’t seem to get people to want to read the coverage in the same amount of depth.

Martin Belam is Social & New Formats Editor for the Guardian in London. He helped set up UsVsTh3m and Ampp3d for the Daily Mirror, and has worked at Sony and the BBC. He is on Twitter as @MartinBelam

You might also be interested in: “Using Twitter and Facebook images of tragedies raises ethical dilemmas for journalists

*Rehman is the current captain of the Pakistan national team, and has played in the UK for Fulham, Brighton, Bradford, Norwich, QPR and Blackpool. He currently plays for Pahang F.C. in Malaysia.