I was a student, studying for my BA in print journalism, when in class a certain lecturer claimed that “when it comes to newsworthiness for the British press, the life of one British citizen is worth a thousand Filipinos.” I was mortified at such a callous declaration, and the man’s subsequent claim that it was merely an example of how the press might ascertain the importance of a story did little to assuage my upset. Could it really be the case that, when gauging whether to report the loss of lives, journalists would measure the worth of the story on whether the deceased happened to share the nationality of their readers, and were therefore news, as opposed to being of little interest?
Given the recent turn of events it would seem I was somewhat naive. A great deal has already been written on the recent preference the western media holds to the terrorist attacks in Paris, with similar and ongoing tragedies in the Middle East receiving a fraction of the coverage. A sea of tricolours can still be seen across facebook, ostensibly a gesture of compassion and solidarity, yet perhaps really a display of preference for one type of victim over another.
This may seem cynical. Yet when it comes to how news is formulated and transmitted to the public there are indeed multiple factors to consider in ascertaining which victims are deemed worthy of concern.
Take the case of one William Dowell, an American journalist who reported on the Bangladeshi Liberation War. Dowell claimed that, for a western journalist reporting from such a conflict zone, there was in fact a ‘cynical rating system’ in place, where ‘among foreign correspondents trying to sell stories to their editors’ one American life was worth ‘fifteen Frenchmen, which were worth twenty thousand Africans, which might be worth a million Asians’. (1)
This ‘calculus of death’, as it was subsequently called, worked on the assumption that an audience was largely interested in the suffering of their ‘own’. As such an audience might consider news regarding those they hold little affinity with as relevant only if it contained an ever increasing level of carnage to hold their interest.
Could this aforementioned ‘calculus of death’ be a reality now? A short, and indeed fair, answer is, yes. Yet this subject pertains directly to the journalistic world and how news is even considered news before it gets into print. News itself is a highly perishable commodity that is subject to change, adjustment and misinterpretation. In an environment as notoriously fast-paced as the modern newsroom, this process finds itself giving way to time considerations where journalists and editors make decisions on instinct. The pressure to stand out as a publication drives this process onwards, with the hope of being the first to obtain breaking news and gain an advantage over other outlets becoming paramount.
This haphazard method can have an effect on the more vitally important stories precisely due to their complex nature. The case of Syria here is a case in point, where reporting on a protracted and multi-faceted civil war may find itself simplified or omitted altogether by editors who perceive the issue too complex for their readers to adequately understand or even care about.
This approach is rendered even more problematic when editors adopt the attitude that because a news angle was successful in the past it will necessarily be so again. This can have the effect of further simplifying complex stories and reducing a convoluted issue to a series of sensationalist headlines and images, giving the viewer a distorted interpretation of an important yet enigmatic story. Whereas with Syria this fits in with the narrative of endless war in the Middle East it is also true of the African continent, where a bombardment of simplistic images and stories results in the phenomenon of ‘compassion fatigue’ in an audience accustomed to injustice being ‘just the way it is’ rather than something requiring immediate action.
This may partly explain why the Paris attacks have commanded such considerable attention. Given that war overseas is something western audiences have long been accustomed to, the appearance of catastrophic violence within the heart of Europe was no doubt unexpected. Yet this doesn’t address another disturbing possibility, that the attacks in France accrued greater relevance in the minds of western viewers because, simply put, the victims bear a marked physical resemblance to themselves.
Hezbollah fighters in their ‘stronghold’.
The way the attacks on Paris and Beirut can be contrasted adds an interesting dimension. Initial accounts from the mainstream papers expressed shock and lament, understandably linking the chain of events in Paris to terrorist activity and an unwarranted loss of lives. Yet in the case of Beirut the attacks suddenly took on a politicised form, with multiple papers describing the city as a ‘Hezbollah stronghold’ or ‘bastion’.
Hezbollah is indeed a decisively important political force in Lebanon, having committed armed forces to the Syrian civil war in ongoing efforts to defend the beleaguered government of President Assad. Yet this doesn’t explain why these papers chose to mention Hezbollah considering what had taken place, just like in Paris, was primarily a terrorist attack on civilians.
Indeed, it would have raised more than a few eyebrows if, instead of focusing on the loss of innocent lives, journalists had referred to Paris as a ‘NATO stronghold’ or ‘EU bastion’. Of course, it would not be technically incorrect to do either, but the angle of the story would have been switched from an emotive account of injustice in action into a calculated analysis of antagonistic political forces.
Upon closer inspection, however, it could be argued that the way both attacks were reported had deep-set political connotations. The narrative of perpetual war in the Middle East is hardly novel, yet it does serve to fix western mentalities within a framework of learned helplessness or outright disregard. When Arabs harm one another it’s within the context of mutual animosity, something often explained with reference to the Sunni/Shia divide, if not an outright racist notion that murderous instability is something innate to the Arab mentality.
The replication of such violence outside of the Middle East, however, presents a different narrative. In an exchange with myself in 2013, Noam Chomsky maintained that human rights easily fall into a “worthy and unworthy victim” dynamic, where a media institution will necessary alter its coverage of a human rights story in relation to how it gauges the moral significance of those suffering.
The Lebanese are thus an unknown quantity, given their evidently divergent qualities as Arabs and, in a great many instances, Muslims, which may partly explain their reduced importance when it comes addressing their ‘worth’ in comparison to the distinctly worthy European. Whereas the individual journalist will no doubt protest their innocence, the sad truth is that Dowell’s aforementioned ‘calculus of death’ – where editors literally valued human life in accordance with the identity of their readership – is still very much evident
(1) Tester, K. 2001, Compassion, Morality and the Media, Buckingham, Open University Press.
Daniel Read is a UK based journalist. He has a BA in journalism and an MA in human rights, and is currently finishing an MSc in global politics at the University of Southampton. Follow him at his blog uncommonsense.me and on Twitter at @DanielTRead