Why some tragedies get a lot of coverage and others don’t

Globe superimposed over newsprint

Picture by Geralt

More than 350 people died in a truck bomb in Somalia on October 14. Earlier in October almost 60 people died in a mass shooting in Las Vegas.
Media coverage of the two events followed a long-established and regrettable pattern in journalism: wall-to-wall coverage of the Las Vegas shootings, patchy and incomplete reports from Mogadishu.
Al-Jazeera noticed what its headline called “double standards”:

Commentator and law professor Khaled Beydoun noted that a bomb attack in Manchester, a northern British city, was covered more widely. “The # of people killed in Somalia yesterday was 10x more than the # killed in Manchester in May (230 to 22). But it got 100x less coverage,” he tweeted.

In simple terms: Western city, big response. African city: small response.
I (and many other journalists) have pondered the reasons for these imbalances for many years.

One thought that often comes to mind is this: The immediate feedback that you get about what people read on online news websites shows that there is less interest in events such as the Somalia bombing. So Western media give less space to these events because their readers or viewers are simply not interested.
A more complex theory is race-based: if the victims are white, or live in a developed Western society, their lives are seen as more valuable – there’s a sub-conscious or explicit bias on the part of the people who choose what news to cover. And I am sure that is a dynamic at play.
I think there’s something extra thing going on – and it’s something we can try to change.

We all love a story

I have been working at allAfrica.com, which covers the African continent and only the African continent. And it has been a steep learning curve. Regions or countries are assigned to specific people in the allAfrica newsroom, and those people then scan a variety of partner news sources across the continent, curating the best or most important news and trends in countries (and across themes like health or education).
As a contract worker, I have been filling in when there are staff shortages, and so I have spent several months “doing Kenya”, and I am now “doing” Uganda and Tanzania.
And it is fascinating!
Every day I look at two or three major publications in each country, scanning for trends and events, hidden gems and celebrity gossip, important issues and human interest features.
Along the way, I have learned an enormous amount about those countries and developed interest and affection and irritation and amusement about the people and bigwigs I am following. In short, I am now involved in the story of these countries. And so when there is a big event or a tragedy in those countries, I care.
Yet only six months ago, I honestly would not have looked at a headline from East Africa, and certainly couldn’t have named the leader of the opposition in Kenya (Raila Odinga, if you want to know).
I’ve noted before how human beings are addicted to stories, quoting Terry Pratchett:

“The anthropologists got it wrong when they named our species Homo sapiens (‘wise man’). In any case it’s an arrogant and bigheaded thing to say, wisdom being one of our least evident features. In reality, we are Pan narrans, the storytelling chimpanzee.” (The Science of Discworld II: The Globe).

And for better or worse, the great American dream machine that is Hollywood and the dominance of United States culture have turned those societies and the people in them into stories that we care about (because we simply can’t help loving a story).

In Africa, the former colonial powers extended their reach into countries in a way that creates the same kind of knowledge of their story (even though we might rather not know).
So the reason we care about Paris and London is because we can picture the scene, we “know” the people involved, we are following the story. And we don’t care about Somalia or Kenya because we can’t picture the scene, we do not “know” the people involved, we have never followed the story.
We are poorer the world over because our knowledge of the stories of other countries is so patchy. But there is something we can do about it. Read more widely, go and see films that are from other parts of the world.
Right now, you could start by bookmarking allAfrica’s Somalia page. That might be more useful than changing your status on Facebook.

2 Comments

  1. Increasing our knowledge of the world and its people is a great idea, no matter what. However, while it may be one of the reasons behind this obvious disparity in reporting (eg. Las Vegas vs Mogadishu) I don’t think that it’s the primary reason. Nor do I agree with the race thing.

    I don’t think that we buy into the stories coming out of the US because of their “Hollywood” glitz and glamour. We are more aware of them simply because of where the news stations that we follow tend to be; they report on those stories, we are aware of them. They’re then regurgitated on social media (again, based in US). You could argue that news stations should have a greater presence in Somalia, and you might be right, but they are still always going to report on home news first.

    In much the same way (I’m guessing, at least), you’ll find that Cornwall Today isn’t commenting much on the Cape Town drought simply because it’s not local to them.

    If Somalia had a news network that broadcast internationally on DSTV like Fox, CNN and Sky do, then I think you would find that that station would have had reported more on the Mogadishu attack than Sky did, but then probably less on the Manchester attack than Sky did. (And thus, yes, we would have had the opportunity to get more involved, but still…)

    I’m not saying that there shouldn’t have been more coverage of Mogadishu, but I really don’t think that there’s any big conspiracy here. The only issue is having to search harder to find what you want to know about. And yes, I know that’s what you are doing, and that’s a great thing. AllAfrica could be a leader in promoting more local news to the African continent.
    But blaming UK and US based media for concentrating more on the attacks in their home nations? No.

  2. reneemoodie@gmail.com

    Thank you for your long and thoughtful comment! I agree there is no big conspiracy – I think news editors and chief subs and bureau chiefs cover what they know their readers are interested in. And that is as it should be. I am interested though in what drives reader interest – this was a first attempt to get to grips with that.

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