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:

  1. Bias Toward the Event–the media will cover unusual events rather than chronic problems.
  2. 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:

Per Capita GDP Affluent Countries vs Middle East

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.