Why some terrorist attacks get coverage and others don’t

Women mourn the death of relatives after a bomb blast in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday. Women mourn the death of relatives after a bomb blast in Lahore, Pakistan, on Sunday. AFP/Getty Images.

Not long after the attack on the airport in Brussels, a familiar theme emerged in some media: Why don’t attacks whose victims aren’t white get as much coverage?
Today, an editor for The Guardian provided a stark answer: You probably don’t care about those.

Writing on Medium.com, Martin Belam said he looked at his website’s traffic statistics after the terrorist attack in Lahore, Pakistan this week and found the story wasn’t the most read. In fact, it wasn’t even in the top five.

And to add a little bit of extra context, lurking at #10 in that list was a year old piece about Cee-Lo Green’s attitude to rape victims, which seems to have suddenly gained a new lease of life on Reddit somewhere. It’s an indicator that it isn’t always your homepage choice, and sometimes not even your own social media channels, that can be huge drivers of traffic.

By contrast, on the day of the Brussels attacks, five of the top ten most read stories on the site that day were about Brussels, with the live blog having millions and millions of views.

Now I’d never use stats like this to determine editorial priority. The Lahore attack was despicable, and is clearly the world’s biggest story today. I’d always run it in the #1 slot.

But what you will probably see over the next few days is that there will be a lot less follow up coverage from the media as a whole than there was follow up coverage of Brussels.

He says he finds the data depressing, but not surprising.

“It’s harder to get mainstream reader empathy and interest in terrorism attacks that occur further from our shores,” he writes. “Many, many of our readers will have visited Brussels or Paris. Far fewer will have ever ventured to Pakistan.”

By way of comparison, Brussels wasn’t the top story on the MPR website last week in the hours after the attacks, either. The Updraft weather blog was. There was a storm coming. Brussels coverage was #4 behind another weather story and a short story on a Facebook cartoon on literature making the rounds.

Sunday’s terrorist attack in Lahore didn’t crack the top 10. The cartoon, a suggestion of Al Franken as a Hillary Clinton running mate, Bernie Sanders’ western wins, the weather, and a story about GMO labeling in Vermont all surpassed it.

“Social media is littered with people accusing the media of not covering Lahore with the same kind of depth that was afforded to Brussels,” Belam acknowledges. “But as an industry we just can’t seem to get people to want to read the coverage in the same amount of depth.”

Where it becomes a more serious problem is when/if media stops trying.


(Video link)