22 Nov 2015

Some foreign tragedies get more media focus than others

From Mediawatch, 9:09 am on 22 November 2015

The shocking attacks on Paris were comprehensively covered this past week in the media, but some critics have complained that that's not always the case when tragedy strikes overseas. An expert tells Mediawatch: don't rush to blame journalists for that. It might be your fault too.

mediawatch@radionz.co.nz; @mediawatchnz

Once the scale of the slaughter in Paris last weekend became clear, getting the facts straight was the first challenge for the media. The confusing and increasingly horrifying details weren't easy to report accurately. It wasn't simple to sift through the flood of images and accounts that swiftly followed either. Many were mundane and misleading, some simply too distressing to publish or broadcast. 

The news was so startling and sad that some outlets abandoned their normal news practices at times. TV3's 3 News for example signed off last Tuesday with a poignant message to the attackers from a man whose wife was killed at the Bataclan theatre. Antoine Leiris later recorded it for the BBC.

photo of Paris-based journalist Simon Kuper

Paris-based journalist Simon Kuper Photo: Vincent Lignier

3 News said it captured a mood of "staunch defiance" but not everyone in Paris felt that way. Journalist Simon Kuper, who had been at the France v Germany football match that night, told an Irish Times podcast the general mood of was one intense confusion. 

One week after the attacks, he wrote in The Financial Times: 

"I keep hearing that Parisians are resilient or heroes. But these are distorting simplifications. We are only starting to process the horror".

Putting a catastrophe into context

Frequently it was described in the media as the most deadly violence in France since World War Two, including here. Among journalists taking issue with that was Robert Fisk in the UK's Independent

Whenever the West is attacked and our innocents are killed, we usually wipe the memory bank. Reporters failed to mention the 1961 Paris massacre of up to 200 Algerians participating in an illegal march against France’s savage colonial war in Algeria. 

Others pointed out it wasn’t even the most deadly atrocity this month. 229 people died when a Russian airliner leaving the Egyptian resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh was bombed. Some also pointed out the those who died in what were thought to be IS-inspired twin suicide bombings in Beirut just the day before had already been forgotten, so strong was the focus on Paris.

That claim prompted a series of articles in serious publications and websites. The Guardian, Slate.com, Vox.com, Atlantic Monthly, Rolling Stone  and even Cosmopolitan magazine online all addressed it. The New Zealand Herald published a piece by a student of public health and philosophy at the University of Auckland, who made this point:

National landmarks are illuminated in the colours of the French flag, as though they are the only victims of terrorism. Even our affable neighbour, Australia, seemed to forget that there are three times as many Lebanese Australians as there are French Australians in their country.

 - Johan Go

But thoughts like this prompted a backlash from other journalists overseas who pointed to plenty of coverage of Lebanon's suffering in the Western press. 

Is there a hierarchy of tragedy?

picture of Folker Hanusch

Folker Hanusch Photo: supplied

Folker Hanusch has studied how the media report death. This week he argued audiences must share the blame with journalists for disproportionate coverage of events like the terrorist attacks in Paris.

Speaking from Vienna, the author of Journalism, Media and Mortality: Representing Death in the News told Mediawatch editors and journalists now produce news they believe their audiences will read, watch or listen to – and increasingly like, share or recommend on social media. Online analytical tools track the engagement of every single site visitor in real time. 

"If people aren't reading these things online, journalists will focus on what they are reading, especially in commercialised news systems," he said. "They get the evidence straight away if people aren't reading stories about (deaths in) Beirut or Kenya."

The news media also responded to people choosing to overlay their social media profile pictures with the French flag this week. "A Lebanese flag filter wasn't available in the same way," Folker Hanusch said. 

Picture of book

Folker Hanusch's book Photo: supplied

Beirut has experienced catastrophic violence in the past, most notably during the civil war in the 1980's when the world was shocked by the images of destruction. Isn't it only natural for the world's media to highlight the attacks in Paris, which were more unexpected? 

"Yes. There's more shock value with it happening in Paris. But since the 1990s, Beirut has been fairly quiet, so what happened there was shocking too," he said. "We all seem to have a stereotypical impression that the Middle East is where these things happen, so they get covered less."

But the fact that editors now get instant feedback online, said Folker Hanusch, also means the audience has more power to change news culture - and that can happen faster than ever before.