A bomb explodes in a western capital and a now familiar debate about the media follows hard on its heels. Why do journalists not cover deadly explosions outside the western world to the same extent and depth as those that occur closer by, whether geographically or culturally?
The debate has generated a lot of writing - by the critics and the defenders. Journalists are understandably sensitive to accusations of bias. Tel Aviv-based journalist Greg Carlstrom asked why these critiques were directed only at western news outlets when journalists and media outlets from Pakistan and Brazil were equally incapable of "transcending their cultural biases".
The same standards, however, do not apply.
Perhaps we would expect similar balance in the media of Guatemala and Papua New Guinea if they had the same global pretensions as western outlets - CNN, BBC, the New York Times, et al - but they do not. Neither did their governments play a similar role in the rise of the Taliban or the breakdown in Syria (or, for that matter, the imperialist policies that drew the modern maps of South Asia and the Middle East). To the extent that a nation's interventions have global implications, its journalists have a global remit.
Yet the selective attention of journalists is not the whole story. "It's undoubtedly true that there is less coverage," wrote Martin Belam, "but it is also regretfully true that there seems to be less of an audience." Leading the Guardian website with stories about Lahore was no guarantee that people would click on them.
"As an industry we just can't seem to get people to want to read the coverage in the same amount of depth," he lamented, rightly pointing to the "overwhelming whiteness of our newsrooms" as an impediment to understanding and conveying Lahore in the same way as Brussels.
What for Belam is a "seemingly intractable problem" is inevitable according to Nesrine Malik. In her understanding, audiences take a greater interest in the suffering of those with whom we share "geographical proximity and cultural affinity". Closeness sells and distance doesn't.
At the heart of this argument is a depressing thought: that we, even those with the best social and cultural intentions, are somehow fundamentally unable to humanise those we consider to be "other".
Thousands of migrants currently camped on Europe’s borders are challenging these boundaries to our sympathy. Consider too the minorities who do live in "geographical proximity" to us (whoever "we" are) who would rightly be horrified to think sympathy or media attention might be withheld on grounds of cultural difference.
But is the argument even true?
That news trades on novelty is a fact seemingly hard-wired into the word itself and yet the idea bears closer examination.
In recent memory numerous stories have transcended geography and culture to win the attention of western audiences. The 1984 famine in Ethiopia became a global cause after pictures of suffering were beamed into the homes of millions of people all over the world. The Southeast Asian tsunami or Typhoon Haiyan, the Nepal earthquake or the Ebola outbreak - geographically distant and culturally "other" but closely watched stories nonetheless. What is it that makes the news newsworthy?
The answer, at least much of it, lies in the novelty.
The Ethiopian famine was of interest because those pictures appeared to a viewing public who had seldom seen such suffering on their television screens. Tidal waves, earthquakes and incurable diseases have news value in a world where such phenomena are uncommon.
A white woman murdered in an affluent suburb garners column inches and airtime that a black man killed in the inner city will not. Under this logic it seems inevitable that a deadly blast in a European capital will get more attention than another suicide bomb in Baghdad. That news trades on novelty is a fact seemingly hard-wired into the word itself and yet the idea bears closer examination.
The newness of the news presupposes a background of normality from which the news event departs. The bomb blast is, in this way, the ultimate "news" event, suddenly, unexpectedly, ripping through the fabric of daily life, shattering the background reality that held firm until the moment of detonation. However, this background is more than just a physical location, it is a construct made up of ideas about what counts as normal and what, by contrast, is "news".
The background from which the news stands out as novel has been painted over time in assumptions and prejudices. If we, as audiences and journalists alike, are more accustomed to mass death in hot, dusty-looking countries than in capital cities that look much like ours, this is not some brute fact of human nature. It has been constructed, learned and handed down over centuries of patronising and demonising the other in culture and the media to justify the export of exploitation, violence and terror.
If a vocal few, sensing this imbalance but not fully understanding how it comes about, seek naively to shift the balance of attention from Brussels to Lahore it is not enough for journalists to draw spurious equivalences, throw up their hands at poor click rates or appeal to affinities as if they were set in stone. It is for us adopt the struggle to create a new normal for what makes news newsworthy.
Source: Al Jazeera