By Mina Shah
I have been struggling for the past week and a half to concretize and process thoughts and feelings with regard to all of the horrible things that happened the weekend of Nov. 13 (Baghdad, Beirut, Bujumbura, Paris and Yola) enough to write an article on even an aspect of the tragedies. My first idea was to write something on the politics of publication, but then I worried that I would be essentially re-writing a column that I wrote last year, following the “Hebdo” shootings, in which the same thing happened: Attacks happened in multiple places around the world at the same time and mass media paid significantly more attention to Paris than to other places that also suffered.
In spite of the fact that this may sound very similar to last year, I’ve decided to write this column anyway, because this time, not only I have more nuanced arguments and more precise critiques that extend beyond what I discussed last time, but moreover, this is a topic that is absolutely important enough to reflect on twice, or three times, or however many times it takes before we decide to learn from the mistakes of history.
Mass media has been unjust in its disproportionate coverage of the Paris attacks over all of the other places that were affected by terrorism the same weekend. While I was able to find information from major news sources on all of the aforementioned attacks, the spread of coverage was not at all equitable. We can compare the few, scattered, several-hundred word stories covering all of the aforementioned attacks which occurred outside of Europe to the change in format of the front page of The New York Times on Saturday, Nov. 14. The contrast in volume (i.e. the overwhelming disproportion of the coverage) is unsettling. And we can add to this that the continued coverage of the aftermath of the Paris attacks, compared to the relatively little we have in follow-up for all of the other spaces that were under attack that weekend, demonstrates this inequity.
It could be argued that general media isn’t actually accountable for informing us about each and every thing that happens in the world. Newspapers each have their own domains. This may be true. However, many big newspapers profess to do it all. For example, the slogan of The New York Times is “All the news that’s fit to print.” If this is true, the NYT needs to step up its reporting game. Otherwise, a change in slogan and a clarification as to what the newspaper actually does, are in order.
Social media has also contributed to the problem of disproportionate responses. Not too long after the attacks in Paris started to happen, Facebook turned on the safety marker function for people in the area. I’m really grateful that this was done, because I’m in Paris, and it gave me an opportunity to quickly and easily notify my social network that I was indeed safe. The “marked safe” function is a beautiful thing. But it shouldn’t have been done solely in high-profile attack areas and reactionarily in other areas. After the attacks in Nigeria (which occurred after the attacks in Paris), the feature was turned on around affected areas, but this only came after backlash, criticizing the company for not activating the “marked safe” feature for the Beirut attacks, which occurred before Paris.
Another interesting feature of the social media discussion is that of filters for profile pictures. Why is it that we can change our profile pictures to have a filter of the French flag, but not a filter of the flag of Lebanon? Or the flag of Iraq? Or the flag of Burundi? Or the flag of Nigeria? Or the flag of any other country or state in recent history that has been affected by massive terror attacks, such as Kenya or Palestine or Syria? Why does Facebook get to decide how, in what way and the selective countries for which we can show our support? If social media companies want to allow users to show support for countries after various tragedies, they should provide users the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with any country, not just the countries decided on by a few to be worthy and in need of support.
Some argue that the overwhelmingly disproportionate responses have to do with the fact that terror attacks and violence in general are more common in some geographic spaces compared with others. While this may be true, we must ask ourselves why we are so comfortable with such a justification. Why is it that we are comfortable maintaining a relative level of peace in certain areas in the world (i.e. Europe and the U.S.) even if there is a constant state of terror and regular violence in other spaces (e.g. the Middle East or various African countries or “non-Western” spaces)? The fact that we are so used to this imbalance is a big problem.
I will admit, the distribution of responses regarding each of the attacks is certainly more equitable than the responses that I saw last year, so that’s good — we’re moving in the right direction. But we have done nowhere near enough, and the distribution of coverage of these various events is still not equitable; nor is the distribution of care and empathy from major world powers on the whole. Hopefully, we will keep pushing forward for equal and appropriate news coverage, as well as for ethical and equitable ability to show solidarity via social media outlets, so that next time something like this happens (as unfortunately, it likely will), we won’t have to have this conversation yet again.
How do we do this? It’s a big problem, so it’s going to take a lot of work and many different moving parts to get us to a point of equity. To start, though, us readers of the press should be insisting that the publications that we read, at the very least, live up to the mottos that they set for themselves. We can do this by writing letters to editors and opinion columns on the weighing of what ought to be published. And while we wait for the newspapers to equalize, we can make sure that we’re reading diverse sources and equalizing our own empathy with regard to to the various terrible things that happen around the world.
Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu.