A few thoughts on how to prioritise human death coverage


Following the spate of bomb attacks in Beirut, Baghdad, Sinai, and Paris, a number of concerns have been raised. Understandably, many people have accused politicians, global publics, and the media for focusing on the Paris Attacks  and failing to direct as much, or the same quality of attention, to what has happened elsewhere. It is impossible to doubt the truth in this, especially given that landmarks around the world, including the Cathedral here in Durham, have been lit up with the French flag. In one piece for Al Jazeera, Habib Battah writes how such sympathy for France underscores “the double standard that lurks beneath the myth of global compassion for victims of such attacks”. – the problem with this piece is that it assumes that global compassion is a myth, when many  people you speak to, if they know about other attacks, are equally compassionate (well, certainly the people I have spoken to).

It is pretty facile to equate the news culture, institutional culture, foreign policy, words of politicians, or how people light up buildings, with how a ‘global public’ empathise about incidents that they may, due to the aforementioned factors, not even be aware of. It also does not adequately reflect important issues about news bias, and also negates the idea that all news organizations are inherently biased, either nationally, linguistically, or culturally. It also does not reflect how connected people feel emotionally to certain people or proximities, and how this impacts their expressions of grief, or why this is the case. Today in the New Statesman, it is argued that audiences must take some of the blame. Does that point to general audience Europhilia? For example, the recent outcry seems to have been framed around  an Anglo – French versus Arab bias. Most of the commentary is criticism directed by Arabs about the relative attention placed upon Paris as opposed to the Arab countries effected recently by bombings. I have, for example, seen posters saying ‘Beirut’ and ‘Paris’, but  not Baghdad,  Sinai? I have also seen profile pictures with images of the French, Lebanese, Syrian, Russian and Iraqi flag.

In some instances, individual nationalism under the guise of cultural nationalism has been the driver of this indignation.  This piece, for example, is called ‘From Beirut, This is Paris: In a World That Doesn’t Care About Arab Lives’. It does not mention the bombs in Iraq that happened at a similar time? However, this does not mean that the author lacks compassion for people in Iraq or Syria. In Egypt, they projected the flags of Lebanon, Russia and France onto the pyramids.  What does this say of their priorities? Why was there no equivalent comparable global outpouring of grief for the Russians, they are white after all, and more of them died than in France? Is Russia considered the global south? Is it because its role in the anti-jihadi coalition is somewhat contested? Or is it simply because those writing it are reflecting their own cultural bias in the form or Arabness, prompted by an Orientalist news-gathering agenda spurned by the unjust global scrutiny of Muslims.

Less complaints have been issued from the peripheries of Arab or Europe. In Sudan, 15 migrants were shot and killed at the Egyptian border yesterday.  On Friday 13th, 22 people were killed in a village in the Central African Republic. 21 were killed in a landslide in China yesterday. Also, is the criticism of bias only applicable when similar events are undertaken in close proximity by similar agencies? Are these valid events for the comparative criticism? Embedded within this are issues of not just who are considered more worthy victims, but national, regional and ethical hierarchies that go beyond a simple global south and north divide.


What are the solutions?

Beneath all this, there should be an inherent assumption that all human lives are equal. A perfectly good one, and a suitable foundation for determining a way forward. Yet how do we do this? Do we limit coverage of every significant event to a limit amount of hours/articles per day? If so, how do you determine what is significant, over a certain amount of deaths, say 50+? Or do we  create a hierarchy in which the significance of an incident is calculated not only by the number of people killed, but also the divergence of ethnicities, nationalities, sexualities, and religions presented? How about we measure news time and content by attributing an equal value to every human life, and thus each human life lost would occupy a certain amount of coverage? If so, then incidents of colossal magnitude, such as genocide, deaths due to global warming, or malarial deaths, would occupy the headlines for decades. Is this a bad thing, or is important to be reminded? How would you determine this algorithm that orders such stories, and when do you determine when a death should slip into oblivion?  How do you categorise death in more nebulous categories?  Should a news site be created to aggregate the number of deaths throughout the past 50 or so years and update them in real-time according to the rough manner in which it was caused? What about other, non-human death issues, such as the impact on species due to climate change? Should we be so human centric, or should the purpose of this endeavor be to create empathy to all living things?

Of course the challenges are voluminous, but if the issue is the value of human life, and people attribute this recognition of this value to the attention in the news, then news coverage and newsworthiness needs to be reconsidered, at least for global news channels, which have more of a responsibility in this regard. Regardless, people’s empathy for those who died in France should not be seen through a nationalist prism,  because let’s face it, the victims were of multiple nationalities and ethnicities. Also, those people who died in France are no less worthy of grief, nor should their worth be determined by how the world chooses to mourn after they are dead, and not in a position to control it. Of course there are innumerable complexities, but as Jamiles Lartey says, we on the left should ‘not minimize 1 tragedy to raise the profile of another, or participate in this kind of attention hijacking’.


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