There’s an exchange in an episode of “West Wing” in which the president of the United States is considering whether to intervene to stop genocide in an African country. And Jeb Bartlett asks his communications director, Will Bailey, “Why is it that a Kundanese life is worth less to me than an American life?”
“I don’t know sir, but it is,” he replies.
The exchange speaks to a reality in matters of international news. Some we pay attention to. Some we don’t.
The social media aftermath of last week’s attacks in Paris has followed a predictable route. People have reposted without questioning a news media slight of Lebanon, where a double suicide attack on Thursday killed dozens.
“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese doctor, wrote on his blog, A Separate State of Mind. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world.”
We can ask for the world to think Beirut is as important as Paris, or for Facebook to add a “safety check” button for us to use daily, or for people to care about us. But the truth of the matter is, we are a people that doesn’t care about itself to begin. We call it habituation, but it’s really not. We call it the new normal, but if this normality then let it go to hell.
In the world that doesn’t care about Arab lives, Arabs lead the front lines.
He’s not wrong, of course. The attacks got scant attention. But is the blame the fault of the news media? Or is it us? What do we choose to ignore?
Writing on Medium, Martin Belam refutes the notion that we didn’t care about the attacks because nobody told us about them. He posts links to the news stories that people chose to ignore.
Yes. There absolutely is room for debate about the proportionality of coverage of an incident like this compared to something like the Paris attacks that happened on Friday, but to say that the media don’t cover terrorism attacks outside of Europe is a lie.
But as anyone working in the news will tell you, if you look at your analytics, people don’t read them very much.
Again, it’s absolutely fine to debate the ethical and moral implications of that, both for media organisations and the audience, but it simply isn’t the case that people don’t know about terrorism outside of Europe because it isn’t reported on.
Which puts the attention about our inattention squarely back on us.
The New York Times’ Ann Barnard calls it the “compassion gap.”
“Imagine if what happened in Paris last night would happen there on a daily basis for five years,” said Nour Kabbach, who fled the heavy bombardment of her home city of Aleppo, Syria, several years ago and now works in humanitarian aid in Beirut.
“Now imagine all that happening without global sympathy for innocent lost lives, with no special media updates by the minute, and without the support of every world leader condemning the violence,” she wrote on Facebook. Finally, she said, ask yourself what it would be like to have to explain to your child why an attack in “another pretty city like yours” got worldwide attention and your own did not.
“Whatever the reasons—and there are many—for the disparity of global reaction, the message that emerges from these twinned events is that some lives matter more than others,” Time’s Aryn Baker, a former bureau chief in Beirut, writes. ISIS is not just a French problem, or, if the ISIS claims to have downed the Russian airliner in Egypt are verified, a Russian problem. It is not just a Lebanese problem. Until there is some recognition that an ISIS attack on one country is an attack on all, ISIS will be everybody’s problem—a problem that won’t be solved.”
Related: One man’s hard lesson after the Eiffel Tower’s darkness was mistaken for a moving tribute (Washington Post)