Terrorism and Global News Coverage

I’m certainly not the only person who has noticed the differences in news media coverage of, and the global responses to, Thursday’s terrorist attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, and Friday’s terrorist attacks in Paris, France.

At the time of this writing, suicide bombers killed at least 41 people in Beirut. At least 128 people were killed in Paris. The Islamic State has claimed responsibility for both attacks.

So why have they been covered differently in the global news media?

Last January, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris, Mikael Owunna wrote an article in which he questioned the standards of Western news media. Part of his argument is that Western media operate with obvious cultural and religious biases that determine how such stories are covered – and even if they are covered at all. Seen through that lens, horrible events that occur in Western nations will get much more attention in other Western nations because of their shared cultural, religious, and political values.

There is also the practical matter of press freedom, which is often codified by Western governments and permits wide latitude in coverage, freedom of movement, and less censorship. Numerous countries do not allow that kind of freedom, so it is much more difficult to report from those places. War and political strife are two other circumstances that determine how much information journalists are able to collect and share from specific locations.

There is an additional issue at work here, as well: global television news media structure.

Few nations have television news media systems that operate on a global scale and use English as one of their primary languages. France is one of them, and when a crisis unfolds in one of these countries, televised coverage of that event is given an immediate global platform. When considering that more than 800 million people speak English as a first or second language, that’s a powerful amount of influence.

I encourage my students to ask themselves questions when these issues arise. Why am I seeing hours of coverage on this topic or event but almost nothing on a similar incident in another part of the world? What kinds of cultural values might be determining story selection? Why are Americans responding on social media to these attacks in Europe but not those attacks in the Middle East or Africa or Asia?

Savvy news consumers should routinely question news coverage and consider the unseen influences on that coverage, such as the global news infrastructure, collective value systems, professional practices, and economic concerns.

We should also routinely consider how we’ve allowed that coverage to shape the way we see the world and those who inhabit it with us.

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