There were a number of very moving tributes in the wake of the most recent terrorist attacks in Paris. Two that touched me were Stephen Colbert’s playing of La Marseillaise on the Late Show and Cecily Strong’s bilingual English/French tribute on SNL.
However, in the wake of the tributes, some people had a legitimate gripe: why were there not tributes of any similar magnitude for the ISIS terrorist attack in Beirut only hours earlier. Indeed, Colbert did not play the Lebanese national anthem, nor was there any English/Arabic tribute on SNL. (Trevor Noah, for his part, did on The Daily Show mention Beirut and Kenya along with Paris.)
Some people were speculating racism, or at least a lesser regard for non-white victims. “Beirut bombing killed 44 people, but hardly any coverage in the States. No white people died,” said Lebanese-American pornographer Abbey Enna on Twitter.
In the same vein, some people suspected a similar reason for there being less coverage of a terrorist attack in Nigeria that also occurred around the same time. “Compare Paris to…Nigeria where Boko Haram had unleashed terror on innocent people with a significant people with a significantly higher death toll. Seems to me that some people’s lives are worth much more than others,” said Umunna Cosmas in the comments section of an Al Jazeera article. And in an eerie foreshadowing, in January some questioned why the terrorist attack in Paris, including the Charlie Hebdo attack, which resulted in 17 people dead, drew far more attention than a massacre in Baga, Nigeria by Boko Haram a few days earlier, where an initial rough estimate placed the death toll around 2,000.
(I contacted the respective spokespeople for Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, and received no response from either.)
And this is far, far from the first time the news media has been accused of not covering something due to prejudices. Some bloggers have asserted the media pays less attention to black female victims of police brutality. Black activist and writer Verónica Bayetti Flores believes it is because of sexism, along with racism, xenophobia, and transphobia:
The truth is that, in the predominantly male-led civil rights organizations who lead efforts to respond to police brutality, in the male-dominated media that covers them, and in the hearts and minds of many people in this country, women who are of color, who are sex workers, undocumented immigrants, transgender (or, god forbid, more than one of those at once) are rarely candidates for “innocence,” and are often blamed for their own deaths, forgotten, or hardly counted at all. Women of color who are targeted by the police, and Black women in particular, are seen as so disposable, so far from being moral actors, that their lives and deaths are just passed over by the mainstream — their victimization and murder just another facet of the American landscape.
Many supporters of Israel also insist there is bias in media coverage and activism surrounding the country. Pundits such as Norman Podhoretz and Alan Dershowitz point out that far, far more Muslims are in humanitarian crises in Syria, Sudan, even Burma, than are in Palestine. But there is not nearly as many protests or coverage on those conflicts.
So are there really ingrained biases that cause us and the news media to sympathize with some plights and not others? Well, it seems there is at least some truth to that. In a 2012 study, researchers found that Arabs and Israelis’ brains showed more excitation in areas associated with empathy when told stories of their own people suffering, compared to those of each other’s demographics. And their brains equally showed less empathy when told of suffering in South America. Likewise, a 2013 study found that participants’ brains showed more empathic activity when viewing pain inflicted on someone of the same race.
But while that may be a factor to an extent, ultimately I do not think there are deep-seated prejudices dictating what the media covers. Checking the New York Times, I found over 1,100 articles last year mentioning Boko Haram, despite Ms. Enna’s plaint that the American media only focuses on white deaths or Mr. Cosmas’s that the media ignores Nigeria. And there has certainly been recent coverage of police brutality toward black women. Off the top of my head, there was Sandra Bland, the young women at a pool party in McKinney, Texas, and a young woman in South Carolina violently tossed in a classroom. And there certainly is substantial coverage of Muslims suffering outside of Israel, like the aforementioned Nigeria coverage.
Honestly, I do not think our newsrooms are all stocked with bigots. I think, at the end of the day, there is a major randomness to what ends up covered by the news. This statement from an opinion piece by Sudanese-born Londoner Nesrine Malik sums it up well: “What is news and what is not is a complicated algorithm that doesn’t necessarily fall along the lines of white deaths bad, others indifferent.”
But I would put it more bluntly: it’s a crapshoot what ends up in the news and what does not.