Opinionista Stephen Grootes 22 November 2015

More deaths does not always mean more news coverage

The media, in South Africa and around the world, is often accused of having a certain bias; that it treats some lives as more valuable than others. There are claims that it spends more time focusing on events, say, in Europe and North America, than it does on, say, Africa or Middle East. The recent attacks in Paris, Beirut and Nigeria have led to more of these claims. Some critics say it is about a lack of empathy, others say that the media is just simply racist. Unfortunately, they miss that this kind of coverage has very little to do with the media practitioners, a lot to do with structure, and almost everything to do with their audiences.

I must start off by saying I am absolutely certain there will be people in the media who strongly disagree with me, whether at other publications, or at the organisations for which I work. I certainly cannot claim to speak for everyone, or even many or for any organisation. That said, I do think a proper, informed discussion needs to be had about this issue.

Just two days after the attacks on Paris, which saw virtually every international television anchor catching the first flight to Paris, the criticism of the media started. Much of it has centred on the fact that just a day before the Paris attacks, Beirut suffered twin bomb attacks as well. The question was posed, why was there so much attention given to 129 French lives, and so little attention given to the 43 Lebanese ones.

It is certainly a question that deserves to be asked, it speaks to issues about the value of news from different places, the value of different lives, and it demonstrates problems and issues within the media space.

Unfortunately it seems the starting point with this criticism is that all lives, and thus all deaths, have equal news value. They do not. The death of Nelson Mandela was given far more coverage than the death of anyone else who passed away at the same time. If the president of the US were attacked tomorrow, would anyone really be surprised that it would get more coverage than anyone else on the same day? Surely not.

And if we only went by the number of dead alone in a particular incident, our media would dominated by three major issues every day; the number of people who died from HIV that day, the people who died because of violent crime, and those who died in car accidents. If the number of people who died was the sole criterion, there would simply be no other news.

When it comes to the situation in Paris and Beirut, it is important to remember the definition of news. It is the extra-ordinary, the unexpected. Of course, for people to die in a bomb blast anywhere is unexpected. But it is, bluntly, more unexpected in Paris than it is in Beirut. This is about history, Paris is one of the safest places in the world, Beirut is not. If there were a bomb blast in Switzerland tomorrow, would it not make sense that that would receive a lot of attention for the simple reason that there hasn’t been a terrorist attack of any kind in Switzerland for as long as anyone can remember?

The part of the world in which you are in really does matter here, Europe is perceived as safe and secure, this kind of attack simply is not expected to happen there. This is one of the reasons that 9/11 in New York was such a big story, there had never been a foreign terrorist attack on anything like this scale in the US since Pearl Harbour in 1941; this meant that it was a unique event, the one that would change history.

The other reason why it was such a big story, for a similar reason to the Paris attacks, is that it was the start of something. In other words, this was going to spark a military reaction, the people who died in both the World Trade Centre and Paris, were going to be only the first. In the case of 9/11 the attacks led to the invasion of Afghanistan. In Paris it was now obvious that France was going to step up its bombing of Islamic State positions in Syria, which it did just days after the attacks.

This is different to say Beirut, or even the situation with Boko Haram in Nigeria. There has really been no violent reaction, that we know of, to the Beirut bombings. Hizbollah will, perhaps, mount some action, the government of Lebanon does not appear to have the capacity to do so. In the case of Nigeria, the military there is so incompetent and lacking in capacity, that there will be virtually no reaction to any outrage by Boko Haram. And, horrifically, no pilot is going to be deployed by the US or Europe to actually do something about it.

The other, vitally important point to make here, is that the attacks on Paris are part of a much bigger dynamic of conflict, not so much of a “clash of civilisations” but of a group of people who appear to have declared war on what is called “The West”. This means that it is important for the media to explore and understand what is actually happening. If the media does not do that, it is going to be very hard for people in “The West” to have a proper conversation about what their societies should do. It is important to know how these attacks were planned, before you talk about banning encryption, or tapping cell phones. And citizens need to know if a state of emergency is justified or not. Which means the media has to investigate, and explain what happened.

And then, of course, there are some hard facts about working in the media that simply cannot be ignored. If you want to go to Nigeria to report on Boko Haram you will find it can be very difficult to get a visa (it is claimed, probably truthfully, that the Nigerian government basically made sure no South African journalists went there to report on last year’s Nigerian Church Collapse). If you get there, you have to report from a place with very little media infrastructure behind you, to get to story itself, you have actually go almost off the grid completely. Which is difficult, expensive, time-consuming, and of course hugely dangerous.

In Paris, journalists from all over the world were literally in the streets of Saint Dennis, just a block or two away from the scene where some of the alleged masterminds were besieged. That kind of proximity to a story means the reportage on it will be very different. Live television feeds will be present in living rooms, offices and bars around the world. And when it comes to telling a story, nothing beats a live TV picture (except for a live radio report). Paris, being one of the world’s biggest cities from a media infrastructure perspective (and just a short swim away from perhaps the second biggest media city in the world, London), was always going to receive that kind of coverage. It was easy, quick, and relatively inexpensive to do.

You can blame the media for that all you like, but just know that covering events as they happen is always the art of the possible, how you cover a story is sometimes very different from how you would have liked to cover the story. And then we come to the question of our audiences.

There is always a bias towards those who are closest, and most like us. That is why most South African publications always lead with stories about South Africans, we are interested in stuff happening around us. When Boko Haram first kidnapped 200 schoolgirls, it was big news here, because of the scale and nature of the event. Then, when the first big bomb attacks happened in Nigeria, they received some coverage, before dropping down the news order. That is because audiences here are not that interested. That may seem like a huge generalisation, and it is, but if you are faced with a newspaper front page featuring something happening in Nigeria, or something happening around the corner from where you live, which are you going to pick? This is not limited to geography, it is also about people “like us”. So, in Australia, you may see more coverage about Britain than about China. Audiences in the US feel that France is thus “closer” to them than Nigeria or Lebanon. This means for South Africa that audiences are often split, some people may feel closer to Europe, or some to Abuja, or Syria. It all depends on the audience of that particular outlet.

In the end of it, we are dealing with the question of “what is news”. To reduce it to numbers of lives is to reduce journalists to mindless computers. That is not what we are; we are sifters of information, trying to work out what is most important to our particular audience. The fact that different outlets choose different stories, and report on the same stories differently shows that we all arrive at different decisions. That is why media diversity is so important. But it also means terrorist attacks are not just a numbers game, but a story in which a large variety of facts needs to be considered. DM


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