Why the Media Pays More Attention to Some Tragedies Than Others
by Benjamin Studebaker
On social media, the reaction to the Paris terrorist attack is steadily devolving into a compassion competition in which people try to prove that they are nicer people than their friends by parading how empathetic they are on the internet. They write sentimental statuses, they change their profile pictures to the tricolor, they send their “thoughts and prayers”, and so on. None of this does anything to make the world a better place–it’s all about using tragedy to self-promote. It’s just another way for people on the internet to say “Look at me!” But perhaps the most obnoxious form of self-promotion is when people claim they are too good to care about Paris, because they care about less mainstream tragedies, most commonly the recent Beirut bombing. These people are tragedy hipsters who engage in tragedy one-upping. They may be well-intentioned–these folks argue that the media fails to cover attacks like the one that occurred in Beirut because of systemic racism. But while systemic racism certainly is a significant problem in our society, their argument mischaracterizes the social forces that cause the media to pay more attention to some tragedies rather than others.
This poem does not get everything wrong–it is right to stand up for refugees, right to recognize the horrors of global war and poverty. But it is also needlessly smug and accusatory. Not only does it claim that we ought to pay attention to the events in Baghdad and Beirut, but it implies that the individuals and media outlets who are not paying attention are doing so because they are racist. In the context of social media self-promotion, it becomes just another way for some people to claim that they are better than others. Racism is important, and many times it is a significant causal force, but the real story of why the media behaves the way it behaves is so much more sophisticated than this reductive narrative that lends itself so easily to blame and shame.
A while back, I wrote a post offering three reasons why the television media can be so unhelpful in understanding world affairs. One of the reasons I gave is that TV news thrives on fear and panic. In western societies, media outlets depend on advertising revenue. On the web, this means that headlines have to be written as click bait. On television, stations need to not only get you to tune in, they need you to keep watching through commercial breaks. This means that while the internet just has to bait you into clicking, television media has to purposefully design every minute of content to grab your attention. The best way to get you to keep watching TV news is to get you to think that the major news stories of the day pose some serious threat to your safety or your family’s safety. TV news has an overwhelming financial incentive to go out of its way to terrify us, to sensationalize stories and inflate threats. They do this all the time with diseases–Ebola, swine flu, avian flu, mad cow, and so on. They’ve cried wolf so many times about diseases that if a genuine pandemic does break out, many of us won’t take it seriously. They also do this with tragedies and potential foreign threats–the TV media needs us to believe that when a tragedy happens somewhere else in the world, it is only a matter of time before something similar happens to you, to your kids, to your family. This keeps us watching and clicking. This has two key effects on what the media covers:
- Bias Toward the Event–the media will cover unusual events rather than chronic problems.
- Bias Toward the Familiar–the media will cover tragedies that affect societies that are more similar to our own rather than societies that are more different from us.
Let’s say a bit more about each.
Bias Toward the Event
If the threat posed by something is chronic, if it is an ordinary part of life, it is hard to get people to be truly terrified of it. For this reason, news outlets focus on usual horrific events and incidents rather than on the big picture threats that do the most damage to our societies. A while back, I created what I call the Studebaker National Tragedy Index, which assigns different levels to tragedies based on the scale of the damage they do to a particular society. Tragedies that kill a larger chunk of the population are higher level than tragedies that kill a smaller portion:
Studebaker National Tragedy Index (SNTI)
|Tragedy Level||Fatalities (% of 2012 US Population)||Examples (# of US fatalities)|
|1||1-10 (0.000003%)||2012 Benghazi Attack (4), 2013 Boston Marathon Bombing (5)|
|2||10-100 (0.00003%)||1999 Columbine High School Shooting (15), 2012 Sandy Hook Massacre (28), 1992-1993 Intervention in Somalia (43)|
|3||100-1,000 (0.0003%)||1995 Oklahoma City Bombing (168), 2012 Hurricane Sandy (286), 1990-1991 Gulf War (294)|
|4||1,000-10,000 (0.003%)||2001 September 11th Attacks (2,977), 2005 Hurricane Katrina (1,833), 2003-2011 Iraq War (4,487), 2001-? Afghanistan War (2,313), 1941 Attack on Pearl Harbor (2,403)|
|5||10,000-100,000 (0.03%)||One Year of US Gun Violence Deaths (32,163), 1950-1953 Korean War (36,516), 1955-1975 Vietnam War (58,209), One Year of Alzheimer’s Deaths (83,494)|
|6||100,000-1 Million (0.3%)||1917-1918 WWI (116,516), One Decade of US Gun Violence Deaths (320,000), 1941-1945 WWII (405,399), 1861-1865 Civil War (750,000), One Year of Cancer Deaths (574,743)|
|7||1 Million-10 Million (3%)||One Decade of Cancer Deaths (5.7 million), Number of African Slaves Killed in Transport & Seasoning Camps Alone (7 million)|
|8||10 Million-100 Million (30%)||No modern US example. See The Black Death in the 14th Century (Killed a fifth of the world’s people) or World War II as a whole (75 million)|
|9||100 Million-1 Billion (up to 100%)||No modern US example. See the Genocide of the Native Americans, which killed more than 90% of the pre-Columbian native population.|
Which of these tragedies get media coverage? The media really doesn’t care what level a tragedy is, as long as it’s unusual and time-constrained. Once a tragedy happens, the media will try to inflate it to drive clicks and eyeballs, irrespective of what level it is. The Boston Bombing was a level 1 tragedy, but it was also an unusual freak event, so it was easier to use this bombing to inspire fear and get attention. The people watching TV are much more likely to be killed by cancer or in a car accident, and these constitute much higher level tragedies when you consider them on an annual or per decade basis, but because these threats are chronic and kill a few hundred or a few thousand people everyday, it’s harder to get people really terrified and it’s harder to hold their attention. If a war rages for long enough, people will get used to losing soldiers. It becomes a chronic issue, and the tragedy of each loss is diminished. So chronic stories only get coverage when there are no events or crises available. This contributes to the lower priority voters typically give to chronic issues like climate change, poverty, healthcare, and other slow killers. It’s also a factor in how people understand crime–the media will report on individual rapes, murders, abductions, and molestation cases because they frighten people, and as a result people come to believe that these crimes are much more common than they really are, that the incidence of crime is increasing even when it is falling. Over the past couple decades, Americans consistently believe the crime rate is increasing even though it has largely fallen during this period:
This perception perpetuates systemic racism, as Americans associate crime with poor communities that are disproportionately black. But the media doesn’t fuel this narrative because it is deliberately racist, it does it inadvertently as part of a process of trying to scare us so that we will keep clicking and watching.
Importantly, we cannot really blame the media outlets for this–they are responding to perverse incentives. They have to get advertising revenue to survive, and they have to get us to click and watch to get advertising revenue. We respond to fear, so they give us fear. It is because we are fear-sensitive that fear becomes the primary means by which media outlets attract attention. What we see in the media reflects what ordinary people are responsive to. It’s a market with strong incentives to appeal to common denominators. The issues that are most important are not necessarily the issues that generate the most advertising revenue.
Bias Toward the Familiar
While the bias toward the event explains why immediate tragedies get covered rather than the big chronic problems that cause the greatest amounts of damage, it does not explain why the media covers an immediate tragedy like Paris rather than an immediate tragedy like Beirut. But the core of the explanation is in the theory already laid out. If media outlets need fear to attract consumers, they are going to be able to inspire a greater amount of fear if the events they cover are the kind of events that media consumers can imagine might happen to people like them.
Most of the people I’m in regular contact with are from English speaking countries like the US, Britain, and Canada. These are all highly developed countries with democratic governments and a shared western cultural heritage that has its roots in European civilization. They are all part of the NATO alliance and have a long history of close international cooperation dating back to both World Wars. On the human development index, the US scores a 0.914. Canada scores a 0.902. Britain scores a 0.892. All three rank in the top 20. France has a similar score of 0.884, good for 20th. The people in these countries all live lifestyles that are more similar than they are different. It is easy for people living in affluent western countries to identify with affluent westerners living in other affluent western countries. If something horrible happens in Paris, it is easy for people to imagine that it could happen in London or New York or Toronto.
Lebanon’s has a human development index score of 0.765, which makes it 65th in the world. Syria scores 0.658, making it 118th. Iraq scores 0.645, leaving it at 120th.
The USA has a per capita GDP of about $54,000. Canada is about $50,000, the UK is about $46,000. France is about $43,000.
Lebanon’s per capita GDP is about $10,000. Iraq’s is about $6,000. In Syria, they haven’t even been able to gather data since 2007, when it was about $2,000. The people living in the affluent western democracies and the people living in the Middle Eastern countries live lives that are mutually unrecognizable:
On top of this, the Middle Eastern countries in the west have a reputation for being violent places. As horrible as it is, violence in the Middle East is regarded in western countries as a chronic problem, as part of the normal state of affairs. So when a tragedy hits even in a place that is relatively safe compared to Aleppo or Tikrit, everyday people living in the west still see that as just another part of the long-term misery that has unfolded and continues to unfold in that region. No one thinks “if it could happen in Beirut, it could happen in Los Angeles”. The fear factor isn’t there, so the coverage isn’t there. If a major terrorist attack happened in Tokyo, there would be a massive response because Japan is a rich society and people living in San Francisco or Vancouver can see their own lifestyles reflected in those of the victims and their families. It doesn’t particularly matter that Japan is an East Asian society–what matters is that Japan is rich and the people who live in Japan have lives that are like our own in such a way that many of us think that things that could happen there could happen here. That’s the necessary thought process for fear, and it’s the necessary thought process for media attention.
The attempts we’re seeing to get everyone to care about everything that happens everywhere equally are futile, because media coverage is not motivated by the media’s beliefs about which stories are important, it’s motivated by the media’s beliefs about which stories will get us to pay attention. They have decades of research on our behavior. They know fear works, and they know what scares us and what doesn’t. Even in a world without systemic racism of any kind, the media would behave the same way, and ordinary people would behave the same way. Racism does not cause fear, fear feeds racism–when we are afraid, we demonize outsiders, we demonize people who are different from us, even on trivial and arbitrary grounds. Media coverage feeds racism, but it is not designed with that in mind–it is designed to produce fear, and racism is a second order consequence, albeit a very important one.
If we really wanted to do something to equalize the coverage and stop systemic racism, we would stop being so afraid all the time. We would stop reacting to sensationalist media coverage. We would stop paying so much attention to terrorism and we would demand that the media address chronic issues like climate change and poverty. We would not listen to stories about homicides and abductions, we would not allow ourselves to be gripped by the fear of crime perpetrated by racial minorities. We would recognize that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself–the serious political consequences of fear mobilized for reckless purposes by cowards and fools. If we want to combat that fear in our society, the solution is not to send thoughts and prayers to Paris or to Beirut. It is to stop focusing on immediate tragedies, to stop being driven by fear. Instead we must start focusing on the chronic issues that create real suffering in the world. Lack of socioeconomic opportunity, broken political systems, inequality, and so on.
After all, why do we think these young men joined the Islamic State in the first place? They’re marginalized, they have no economic opportunity, they’re poorly educated, and they have no confidence in their political systems. Chronic problems create terrorism. The politics of fear will never solve those problems. The world needs structural, institutional, and policy change, not prayers on Facebook. We should be a positive force by rejecting fear in all its forms, not by squabbling over which tragedy should scare us more. We must say no to tragedy hipsters, no to tragedy one-upping, no to the spreading of needless, unconstructive fear on social media.
Interesting piece, as ever. I have one query/disagreement with your analysis. Whilst it might be relevant in the US, the market share in the UK is somewhat less critical because, in the case of the BBC it isn’t linked directly to revenue/advertising. Yet whenever something like this happens the feeding frenzy by the state subsidised Beeb is voracious. Surely that down to lazy reporting on the cheap? A similar argument, sure, but with a somewhat different driver. It takes more effort to adequately cover the Beirut bombing last Thursday, but with Paris, it’s there on a plate for them. The problem with the BBC as far as I can see is they seem to have this intense desire to turn any event into a simplistic soap opera. We’ve had much recently of this ilk over Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. Easy reporting due to the need to create repetition to fill a hypothetical 24 hour news service. Keep up the good work. Enjoy your pieces immensely. Dave.
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While the BBC doesn’t depend on advertising revenue, it still wants eyeballs. If programs on the BBC don’t get eyeballs, they potentially earn the ire of the higher ups. As long as you want eyeballs, you’re going to have deep incentives to push fear narratives. The BBC also competes with other TV news and newspaper outlets that will all be dominated by fear, so if the BBC doesn’t cover the same topics, it gets accused of bias, which it wants to avoid.
I had a similar thought about the BBC, but then I remembered that actually now the Beeb is a business too, and has been since Michael Checkland in the late ’80’s, they have to compete also (and lower standards as you rightly point out) to survive. So although it’s not exactly the same, the same drives occur: they have to compete with the advertising channels for attention. Great article by the way..
“… media coverage is not motivated by the media’s beliefs about which stories are important, it’s motivated by the media’s beliefs about which stories will get us to pay attention.”
I don’t know much about the dynamics of news reporting elsewhere in the world but here in the U.S. mass media coverage — both electronic and hard copy — also is heavily influenced by what appears to be a herd instinct. This is the product not only of fighting for our eyeballs but unrestrained corporate greed and parsimony.
A dangerous concentration of media ownership is one valve at the heart of the problem. This is a subject former WaPo editor Ben Bagdikian has been harping on for decades. To little avail, I am sorry to say. It has only gotten worse in the forty years or so his book has been standard issue in journalism schools. I don’t recall off hand the exact numbers, but from well over two dozen mass media owners when the first edition of Bagdikian’s text came out, the latest edition reports we’re now down to something like four or five.
Outside of the estimable BBC, few television owners finance much of a reporting staff. Even fewer these days station any correspondents on foreign soil. (Those British accents you heard reporting from Paris largely came from BBC). Modern media, print and electronic, merely cherry pick from one another and wind up stampeding in the same direction — too often riding the same misinformation to the same misguided conclusions. On a daily basis Google News and your typical American cable news network offer depressing proof of this.
Greed for ever-higher profits has driven U.S. corporate media owners to nearly eliminate even the reporting staff in their own locality. Gannett Corp could be the poster parent. In cities around the nation over the past few years it has purchased once-proud newspapers, like the Des Moines Register, and turned them into a thin fish wrappers for USA Today. In a city where I live twenty years ago the local paper(s) had about a hundred reporters. After being purchased by Gannett, the building has been sold and the local reporting staff reduced to the point where they almost can have their editorial meetings in a Greyhound bus bathroom.
That’s a good point–there’s definitely some herd mentality going on. If someone is getting lots of eyeballs covering a story, you’re going to want to cover the same story to get a piece of that action, and by covering the same story you don’t have to do as much original reporting.
Reblogged this on A Collection of Thoughts.
It’s a great, insightful piece and I have shared it widely. I thought it a shame that in the last paragraph (which I concede is only tangential to the central point) the role played by the religious narrative is completely absent. You are of course right to emphasise marginalisation, poor education and unemployment as the recruiting background. It’s also true that without the religious narrative and the presence of highly educated and even devout, pious more senior members, the Islamic State could not function or even exist. It’s frustrating to me how the link between religious belief and behaviour (dare I say ‘the elephant in the room’?) is so readily discounted in an otherwise very insightful piece.
There are a very large number of Muslims in the world but only a small minority of them join groups like IS, so it’s important to ask what makes the Muslims who join IS different from other Muslims, what makes them more likely to buy into what the radical clerics are selling. That’s why I tend to emphasize socioeconomic and political factors rather than religious ones.
I agree the number of Isis members is mere noise in comparison with the world muslim population.
It is also true that Salafi and Wahabbi interpretations of Islam (from which the country of Saudi Arabia as well as groups like Al Qaeda and IS were spawn) and offshoot islamist movements (like for example Hizb ut Tahrir) have considerable more traction in muslim majority countries as well as in western ones. They are even represented in many western universities. The appeal of their views, which aim at creating a global Caliphate by different means (though I concede, not always violent) and impose a 7th Century form of Sharia, is more widespread than we should be comfortable with, as the 2013 Pew Institute report (and many others show).
I hope you would agree that such an ideological backdrop can play a significant role in pushing swaying Muslims (under the conditions you describe) to join organisations like ISIS. It is also worth noting that such groups (as well ISIS in particular) are also joined by educated, skilled and religiously conservative people. In the case of ISIS they were founded by someone holding a PhD in Islamic studies. I would have thought the religious element was worth at least a mention, after all, it’s no coincidence there are no young disenfranchised Buddhists, or anarchist atheists in Isis.
And ultimately the specific organisation itself is not important, Isis has only been around for a couple of years, and might not exist in a couple of years, but Islamist and Salafi narratives have existed for centuries and will outlive Isis, and will probably inspire the ‘next big thing’.
It’s such a big topic that it made me think your last paragraph (which I don’t disagree with, by the way) was somewhat incomplete.
The people on my Facebook with Paris Filters need to see this thanks for the post!
As someone who worked in magazine publishing for years, including news titles, the media tends to report about what people want to hear: what is close to them, what might affect them, how they live etc. That the broadcast media often sensationalizes one story over another of course has its own interests at heart: they want people to watch/read their own output. Remaining profitable and competitive does mean ad revenues are needed – though not so in the case of the BBC or the ad/public-revenue-share models of many other public service broadcasters (RTE in Ireland etc.), but also many news stations don;t actually have many ads, but are supported by subscription revenues (SKY in the UK, CNN etc.). They often have endless breaks about their own TV shows, but surely this serves to irritate a viewer who can so easily switch channel as he/she can close down a webpage they’ve clicked on. Far too simplistic to just put it down to media chasing ad revenues that dictates the stories they cover.
Not sure I agree entirely with the racism accusation, either, for reasons of simplicity. All else are valid points, but perhaps it’s simply because Paris has a much stronger resonance in people’s minds, imaginations. It’s a fine, ‘civilised’ city famed from film, television, books, history. More so than grotty Baghdad or messy Beirut. It’s more likely a place where people have visited themselves, or have friends and family who have. Paris has La marseillaise; the black and white footage of its liberation in 1944; street cafes; architectural splendor; funny, bumbling detectives; fashion shops and all – nice things we (in the west) can all identify with more closely than squalor and dust…
Still and all, self-promotion stuff aplenty with the French flag thing!
Even if they’re not chasing ad revenue, they are chasing viewers and subscribers. As long as you want people to watch, read, or click, you’ll operate under the incentive structure I describe.
I don’t necessarily disagree, but I couldn’t help but wander on the topic of being “needlessly smug and accusatory” and “using tragedy to self-promote” whether the same accusation could not be laid at the framing at the start of this article itself. I look forward to the next level of meta-criticism where someone asserts that the ultimate form of tragedy-hipster oneupmanship is to claim not to know better about what is the real tragedy, but to claim to better understand why everyone is looking at the tragedy the way they are.
Which is to say that categorising people as ‘tragedy hipsters’ and as ‘using tragedy to self-promote’ may itself boost readership for the blog, but isn’t the most generous way of stating the issue.
Absolutely, I received a significant increase in traffic as a result of writing provocatively about the Paris attacks, and it is very true that I have a serious incentive to word my titles and my introductions this way to attract readers. If you compare this post to my post from two days before, I look hypocritical–in “Ignore the Paris Terrorist Attack”, I criticize people for paying attention to the Paris attack, and in this post I criticize people for criticizing people who pay attention to that attack by telling them they should pay attention to some other attack.
What unites these two seemingly inconsistent posts is a desire on my part to diminish the extent to which people fear-monger about terrorism to reduce to risk that we will take destructive, foolish, and immoral political action (e.g. military interventions, border closings, rejecting refugees, etc.). By writing provocatively, I get more people to read and share my work. When we take my first post and this third one and put them together, the message is clear–don’t just ignore the Paris terrorist attack, ignore all terrorist attacks, wherever they happen. Don’t be afraid and don’t encourage others to be afraid. Unfortunately, to get that message across to as many people as possible, I have to craft the message in a way that elicits a response. Being provocative is a better strategy than being generous. Perhaps that’s an indictment of me as a writer, but I think it’s just as easily an indictment of the people who read and share political content.
Agreed, could not have said it better.
I hate cynicism – it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. You lost me in the first paragraph.
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