Human thing or western media thing?

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Three terrorist attacks in one week: Belgium, Pakistan and Iraq. But while the western media gave ample coverage to the victims in Europe, their eastern counterparts were mostly ignored.

This was the complaint shared by many on social media in the last week of March, when bomb blasts killed 32 people in Brussels on 22 March, 72 in Lahore on 25 March and 32 in Baghdad on 27 March. The disproportionate coverage of the attacks by western media sparked outraged comments on Twitter:

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As well as illustrations like this (inspired by the #PrayforParis peace symbol, that was shared on social media after the Paris attacks last November):

 

pray for lahore

And this (a reference to the bomb attacks in Ankara and Istanbul in Turkey):

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Two journalists, one in the US and one in the UK, have since written about the outrage.

The Guardian’s social and new formats editor Martin Belam wrote a blog on Medium entitled, “The difficulty of getting people to read about Lahore“. In it, Belam explains that on the day of the attack in Lahore, The Guardian’s website lead with the story. But statistics show that readers were simply more interested in news that was closer to home. This included “stories about a logic puzzle, the ruins of Palmyra, a woman having lots and lots of sex but being dissatisfied about it and John Kerry’s comments on the US Presidential race.” On the day of the attacks in Brussels, however, all five most read stories on The Guardian were about Brussels.

Belam puts the lack of interest down to distance: “It’s harder to get mainstream reader empathy in attacks that occur further from our shores. Many of our readers will have visited Brussels or Paris. Far fewer will have ever ventured to Pakistan.”

But while Belam’s rationalisation of reader behaviour as a basic human instinct might be accurate, Glenn Greenwald has argued that this is not enough. “The point isn’t justification,” the US-based journalist, who broke Edward Snowden’s story about US surveillance, wrote on The Intercept.

According to Greenwald, it is understandable that human beings will empathise more with the familiar. But as journalists, it is our responsibility to tell the story of victims from less familiar countries because we otherwise risk rendering their suffering invisible.

“Regardless of the rationale for this media discrepancy, the distortive impact is the same: By endlessly focusing on and dramatizing Western victims of violence while ignoring the victims of the West’s own violence, the impression is continually bolstered that only They, but not We, engage in violence that kills innocent people,” he wrote.

A thought-provoking comment on Belam’s article asked whether the lack of empathy for people suffering beyond our own borders is a “human thing” or just a “western media thing”.

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