Paris and Beirut: journalism’s selective compassion

Is it editors, journalists or audiences to blame?

Des Freedman
18 November 2015


, CC BY 2.0

"A life is a life" said Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn reflecting on the disparity between blanket media coverage of the atrocities in Paris last Friday and what he perceived as a distinct lack of attention to the loss of life in other parts of the world. Pointing to last week’s suicide bombs in Beirut in which 43 people were killed and the 95 people killed in Turkey last month, Corbyn argued that "our media needs to be able to report things that happen outside of Europe as well as inside." This echoed a similar claim earlier this year that western media focused on the terror attacks in Paris back in January but paid scant attention to the massacre of many hundreds of people by Boko Haram in northern Nigeria.

Corbyn’s comments have been criticised by a number of journalists and commentators who throw their hands up in horror at the idea that they prioritise some lives over others and deny that the media fail adequately to cover events wherever they take place. One described this claim as "a lie", insisting that there were over a thousand articles – including some in the world’s leading news outlets – that reported on the bombings in Beirut even before the attacks took place in Paris.

"A life is a life"It’s true that the BBC, CNN, New York Times, Guardian and the Daily Mail did cover the terrible events in Beirut. However, none of them led with it; none of them stopped to think that this might be a life-changing event; none of them ‘scrambled’ to cover the bombings as the NYT admitted it did in relation to Paris. Indeed, the major opinion former for the UK, BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, managed to completely neglect what happened in Beirut the morning after the explosions. It found time to talk about foreign affairs, for example the elections in Myanmar, the appeal of Narendra Modi and the doping of Russian athletes, but Islamic State suicide bombs that killed dozens and injured hundreds beyond the boundaries of Europe did not feature at all on the programme.

Some journalists insist that isn’t the fault of editors but audiences – if we miss the coverage, it is our fault. "Don’t complain that the media didn’t tell you about a tragedy on the other side of the world" argued one British journalist. "They did. You just didn’t click." We are interested, apparently, only in what is "proximate" and therefore meaningful to us. We can’t be bothered with stories about what happens a long way off and the numbers prove this: "as anyone working in the news will tell you, if you look at your analytics, people don’t read them [stories about faraway foreign countries] very much."

That’s a great character reference for mainstream news: we won’t write about important events in case we bore our audiences, as their capacity for compassion will only travel very short distances. It’s the perfect neoliberal expression of news as a commodity with no value beyond how many hits it can attract.

if you look at your analytics, people don’t read them [stories about faraway foreign countries] very muchThis patronises individual readers who lack the agenda-setting power of large news organisations but it isn’t a huge surprise. A western news media that frames the world in its own image, that is generally very intimate with the powerful (wherever they may live) but that sees the rest of the globe in relation to its own ‘sphere of influence’, is hardly going to be one that treats every single human life with the dignity it deserves.

The ‘selective compassion’ of large news groups is very different to the behaviour of individual readers and viewers who will want to show solidarity with those they know best. (That’s also why there was such a strong backlash against Facebook for not rolling out their safety check facility for all the victims of terror). One of the jobs of an outward looking news media is precisely to expand our horizons and make links between what otherwise might be seen as unconnected events (or, in some cases, simply to make these events more visible to those who did not experience them). That's the problem with journalism's selective compassion: it isolates events and removes them from wider contexts and patterns. What happened in Paris last Friday is horrific in its own right but it is nevertheless intimately connected to what has happened in recent weeks in Egypt, Lebanon and Iraq.

You can see how this ‘selective compassion’ works not simply in relation to tabloids with more limited foreign coverage but also in titles that do profess to have a commitment to international news. The Observer’s Nick Cohen, for example, reacted to the Paris attacks by worrying exclusively about what they might do to European liberalism. Writing about Europe’s "modest response to terrorism", he insisted that, despite immense provocation, the continent still remains a beacon of democracy and civil liberties. This may come as a shock to the victims of rendition who didn’t quite enjoy the full benefits of the European Convention on Human Rights or to the refugees who drown in the Med because European governments didn’t want to spend money either saving them or housing them.

But Cohen’s argument also absolves western powers for any responsibility in unleashing the instability and desperation that might have had an impact on the emergence of the groups who refugees are now running away from – whether in Libya, Syria or Iraq. While faraway countries like Nigeria and Afghanistan are subject to "clerical fascism" and civil war, "Europe has been lucky", Cohen tells us, because we still have our decency and our sense of humour. It’s like we were never there in those strange foreign lands.

Given that the central aim of Islamic State is to sow divisions – between Muslims as well as between Muslims and non-Muslims – Cohen’s concern that European liberalism might now be under sustained pressure is more than just a little short-sighted. After all, it is precisely this history that has been so wrapped up in the colonial and imperial projects that continue to exert their blowback. In these circumstances, we would all benefit from a journalism that takes the lives and histories of non-Europeans just as seriously as those ‘lucky’ enough to live in Europe – not least if we want to defend civil liberties and roll back terrorism and militarism.

Shrugging your shoulders and accepting that journalism can only be about ‘proximity’ and the ‘national interest’ doesn’t adequately help us to understand and show solidarity with the lives of others. Perhaps we should remember the words of one journalist who, after a major terrorist attack, argued that ‘just as those who are hardest on criminals are softest on crime, so the loudest patriots make the most treacherous garrison’. Nick Cohen wrote that immediately following 9/11.

Both Cohen and the rest of us would do well to bear this in mind when we hear appeals from our leaders that the only way to win a peace is to wage a war.


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