You might not have known about the Beirut bombing when it happened. On Monday two ISIS suicide bombers detonated explosive vests in a packed market, killing forty-three people and leaving behind scenes of unspeakable misery and carnage. According to the state news agency, a further 239 were injured, and the death toll is sure to rise. A failed bomber arrested immediately after the attack told investigators how he and his comrades had crossed the border from Syria just days before.
This might have been news to you and I, and although it garnered some media attention it certainly didn’t generate the headlines that the Paris attacks did a day after. But apparently it wasn’t news to many people across social media, who immediately began sharing and posting messages of anger and annoyance that the Beirut attack had been totally overlooked. Also a target of the clicktivists ire was Facebook itself, who activated a safety function during the Paris attack that enabled users to proclaim themselves safe, and enabled an app that allowed users to show solidarity by supplanted their profile picture with the French flag. Neither of these features were available in relation to the Lebanon bombing. ‘The media’, these social media activists complain, gives way more attention to terrorist atrocities in Western European nations than it does to those in non-English speaking countries far away from our shores.
There is definitely truth in this claim. I don’t need to run some kind of statistical media analysis to demonstrate that the Paris attack generated far more column inches and headlines than the Beirut one did. Nearly a week later and the Paris attack and its aftermath is still the top story for most media organisations, with the continued drama of the subsequent investigation and political developments continuing to fascinate Western audiences. The Beirut bombing, by comparison, seems virtually forgotten by the media.
Perhaps one of the most shocking examples of public apathy to a significant news story primarily because of its developing world location was the catastrophic Baga massacre carried out by Boko Haram in Nigeria, in which a staggering 2000 people are estimated to have been slaughtered. This sickening act of genocide barely registered at all on the media radar, whilst the concurrently timed Charlie Hebdo terror attack in Paris (death toll: 17) detonated explosive headlines across the world back in January. But why? Is this simply media racism, or something else entirely?
The problem is, ‘the media’ is not some evil overlord that just spoon-feeds us racial bias because that’s the agenda it wants to push. The media is a business, and if we weren’t buying, and sharing, and reading, the agenda would change. The media did report the Beirut bombing, but crucially it is a lack of attention from readers that actually ensures these stories aren’t investigated and reported more widely and in more detail. Simple business economics also plays a part; it is expensive, difficult and often dangerous to report on terrorist atrocities happening in the developing world, and a lack of photographic evidence, accessible witnesses and communications infrastructure makes these stories simply much more difficult to report. This is especially true of the Boko Haram massacre, were attacks on journalists and a difficult working environment were highly successful in warding off the global media. However it remains true that if the public showed a higher interest in Boko Haram, the media would fork out to send reporters to investigate more fully. This is why they report constantly from Syria, but far less from the Central African Republic and South Sudan.
Conversely, some claims about media blindness in the aftermath of the Paris attacks have been fairly unjustified. Those on social media claiming the 2013 Kenya shopping mall attacks went largely ignored by the press seems a little unfair, since my recollection is that these horrifying events gained a large amount of press coverage at the time, and was top story for most media organisations. The fact that this attack is still ingrained in public consciousness even though it happened two years ago should stand as an example of the amount of media coverage it received, and a quick google search for articles on this from the hardly-foreign-affairs-focused Daily Mail shows a high number of articles. Urban Nairobi is far more accessible than rural war-torn Nigeria, suggesting ease-of-reporting was probably a large factor in the proliferation of this story. In fact, two years later The Mail is still running follow-up stories on this topic; it seems unlikely Beirut will get this attention.
From the perspective that all human lives are equal and the tragic loss of Lebanese, Nigerian, or Kenya lives should be no more important to us than the loss of French ones, the attention given to the victims of the Paris attacks is grotesquely unfair, by comparison. From Western military action and general ignorance about the world, it is certainly true that the equality of interest and grief is just not balanced when it comes to our view of death and destruction across the globe. However aside from this there is also a perfectly genuine and legitimate reason why Western media organisations give more attention to terror attacks that happen in neighbouring countries, and that is because the impact they have on our lives as individuals is just far more significant to us. The Beirut bombing, while devastating for the Lebanese, is of little consequence to our politics, our national security policy or our own personal safety. The Paris attacks, on the other hand, are central to many of our most pressing social issues, from the threat of domestic terror to islamophobia to refugee policy and our relationship with the European Union. It is disingenuous for this point to go unmentioned.
The media is not an organism in its own right, but reflects only that which we as consumers are keen to digest, read and share. The reality of this that is most telling is the response from across social media to Paris and to Beirut. On the day of the Beirut bombing there was no sign of it across my news feed, but in the aftermath of the Paris attack my wall was filled with people telling me I should care equally about Beirut as I do about Paris. This is absolutely correct; grief for the victims deserve equal consideration wherever they might be located. Perhaps if we viewed Arab lives as equal to Western ones we might think twice about knowingly bombing civilians in Raqqa in a way that would never be an acceptable tactic on European soil. But it might be prudent for the clicktivists to ask themselves why they didn’t share stories about Beirut when the news actually happened. Can it be that they may also be guilty of giving lesser consideration to these news stories?
There are far too many terrible things happening in the world for us to ever give them anything near to a balanced consideration. But instead of retroactively instructing others to care more about events you gave little attention to until others showed attention to something else, some clicktivists would do well to living by their own philosophy. Only sharing these events on social media, and showing a greater interest in them at the time, will shift the corporate media focus toward a more balanced view of the world.