People click on stories about Paris but not Beirut? It’s more than geography and apathy.
I’m seeing some push-back from journalists over criticism that Paris was covered more than Beirut. Places like Beirut are covered, journalists respond, but people just aren’t as interested in those stories (it’s about “proximity”). Yes, if we count clicks and views, I’m sure Paris gets more interest. But much of the push-back ignores the totality of international coverage — in other words, coverage when violence strikes and when it doesn’t strike — and a consideration of why people aren’t interested.
It’s logical that readers are more likely to be interested in parts of the world they know something about…something beyond the fact that a lot bombs go off there or that people are starving. When massive swathes of the globe are relegated to at best sporadic crisis coverage, and at worst invisibility, then news consumer disinterest is not that surprising. Let’s also consider how the world is shown in times of non-crisis: When not our own, whose films do we discuss? Whose sports? Whose art? Whose businesses and economies? Based on a media cartography, much of the world is shrouded in a hazy mist that is lifted only when there is a traumatic event.
Then there is how we treat the victims. How often, for example, have the pictures, names and occupations of Iraqi citizens killed in suicide bombings been posted to major international news websites (as they were for the victims in Paris)? When they are covered at all, that is. These are Iraqis, it should be noted, who have died in the aftermath of a catastrophic US/UK occupation (if you want to argue that people are interested in stories “proximate” or “relevant” to their home country). This type of personalized in-depth coverage — much more typical in coverage of terror attacks in Europe and the US — creates a closeness to the victims, and a sense of their being in and of this world. This, in turn, humanizes the places where they live: these become sites of living, working and the humdrum of daily life. It is the puncture of that universal everyday-ness by acts of brutality that rips at our core. The single shoe on the sidewalk. The story that a victim liked music or cooking. A student nearing graduation. What is the reason for not showing some of these these pictures, and discussing these personal details, when we do so for others?
I don’t know the people in Paris, just as I don’t know those in Baghdad or Beirut. But some become more than statistics, while some stay as numbers. It’s a choice, and it’s a choice that repeats itself. Thus, news consumers disinterest in this coverage might have something to do with the repetitive impersonal framing of these events in comparison to events “closer to home” where the events are put into personal context, making for more engaging stories and a longer-term sense of connection.
The “geographic/cultural proximity” argument for journalism also hits a wall when we consider how events within our own borders are covered. In the US context, think of Hurricane Katrina in 2005. Think of the over 1,000 deaths in Louisiana. Think of the fact that the victims were disproportionately poor and African-American. Think of the bodies floating for days without recovery. Think of the situation where many Americans were “unaware” of the extreme poverty found within their own borders. Then ask how this kind of ignorance was possible. What? Louisiana isn’t geographically proximate enough for that to have been covered in the US? And, ask what the media response would have been had the rotting corpses of corporate CEOs and hedge fund managers been floating for days in upper-middle class suburbs in Connecticut. It would have hit the stratosphere in an entirely different way…and stayed there much longer. Coverage (and non-coverage) of poverty in New Orleans and Hurricane Katrina was about class and ethnicity, not vague notions of geography and nation. It was about who the victims are, not just where they live. This practice of privileging the privileged is not relegated to domestic news, but happens very often in international coverage.
Now, the assertion that the Beirut bombing wasn’t covered is simply not true, and the “people aren’t reading” counter-argument is important and relevant. After all, why produce news if people won’t read it? The problem is that taking articles and simply comparing them based on clicks and hits does not take into account either the differing content and tone of those pieces, or the broader, often problematic historical trajectory of international coverage.
If people aren’t reading or watching, that might say as much about the product as it does about the consumer.
Christian Christensen is Professor of Journalism at Stockholm University, Sweden. Twitter: @chrchristensen