Lives Fit for Print: Exposing Media Bias in Coverage of Terrorism

Lives Fit for Print: Exposing Media Bias in Coverage of Terrorism

Lives Fit for Print: Exposing Media Bias in Coverage of Terrorism

A detailed study shows that attacks in Western countries are covered far more often—and with more depth and heart—than ones in non-Western countries.


On a brisk November 13 night in Paris, armed gunmen killed 130 people and shocked the world. Global media snapped into full focus, covering the attack with a frequency and depth unmatched by coverage of any terrorist attack since the Charlie Hebdo shooting in Paris earlier that year. Just hours earlier, in Beirut and Baghdad, terrorist attacks had claimed the lives of dozens. In Lebanon and Iraq, many were equally shocked, not simply by these attacks, but by what they perceived as a comparable lack of media attention to them. That week marked one crescendo in critiques on media institutions for allegedly covering terrorism more often and more in depth when it occurs in Western countries than when it occurs in non-Western ones.

Media outlets have responded by saying “we’re covering terrorism everywhere—you’re just not reading and sharing our articles.” Outlets are calling critics “tragedy hipsters,” “grief shamers,” and “whataboutists”—suggesting that those who criticize the media are unfairly employing anecdotal examples to serve their own agendas. In November, Vox advanced this position by noting that it not only published articles about the Paris attack, but also published articles about Beirut and Baghdad (a surprisingly anecdotal reply for a data-driven publication).

But these anecdotes don’t indicate whether the media expose readers to, and thus induce us to care more or less about, certain incidents of terrorism (and by extension certain victims of terrorism).

Frustrated, I collected data (via the Google news aggregator) on each of the 334 reported incidents of terrorism last year—where the incident occurred, how many victims there were, and how much coverage the incident received on the day of the attack. To discern the amount of coverage, I used Google News’s advanced search function to search news on a given day discussing a “terrorist attack” and a given country’s name. For example, I might search news from November 13, 2015, for “Terrorist Attack France.” Searches returned batches of articles including these English words. I then reviewed the search hits to glean the number of articles actually discussing the terrorist attack in question and added them up.

The results were shocking.

At the outset, it’s worth noting that the argument that media institutions covered the November attacks in Paris, Beirut, and Baghdad in equal measure isn’t just unsupported, it’s glaringly false. On the day of each respective attack, there were 392 articles online about the attack in Baghdad and 1,292 articles about the attack in Beirut. On the day of the Paris attack, there were over 21,000.

This trend extended throughout 2015. But before we dive deeper into the data, let’s talk about why this matters. Countries are moved to protect individuals (within and beyond their borders) by pressure from citizens. Citizens can only pressure their government to act if they are aware of the hardships facing those who are imperiled. And citizens (and policy-makers) rely on media to keep them informed. That’s part of why it just feels wrong for the media to cover terrorism selectively (intentionally or not). We are deeply reliant on the media, and we know intuitively that when attacks on groups of people are shrouded in darkness, attacks on those groups can persist unabated.

*  *  *

So how bad is the problem? The first step to understanding the skew is to understand where terrorism is happening.

The fact is that major attacks, like the one in Paris last fall, happen all the time in non-Western countries: In 2015, there were 26 incidents of terrorism in which 50 or more people died. That works out to more than two large-scale attacks per month. This was shocking to me. I can’t recall a huge moment of solidarity against terrorism every two weeks last year. In all candor, I can only recall six—when Boko Haram reportedly massacred 2,000 people in Nigeria (#PrayForNigeria), when the staff of Charlie Hebdo was attacked in Paris (#JeSuisCharlie), when Paris and Beirut were attacked in November (#PrayForParis, #PrayForBeirut), and the two December attacks in San Bernardino and Colorado Springs (#SanBernardino, #StandWithPP). Only two of those attacks took over 50 lives. So that leaves 25 incidents with massive losses of life that seemed to just… pass by.

And almost all of these largely unreported major terrorist attacks were in non-Western countries. Of the 26 incidents in which 50 or more people died, only one happened in the West—the November attack in Paris. Of the remaining 25, 13 were in Africa (with 9 in Nigeria alone) and 11 were in the Middle East (with 4 in Iraq).

Many non-Western countries are hit by smaller terror incidents all the time. Nigeria, for example, suffered from 40 terror attacks last year—one every week and a half—with a staggering aggregate death toll of 3,193.

Try to imagine, for a second, that since January of 2015 there had been 40 incidents of terrorism in the United States, and that in 9 of them, 50 or more people had died. If that’s hard to do, think about this instead: Conservative estimates suggest that Nigeria experienced more terror-related loss of life in 2015 than the United States did in 2001, the year of 9/11.

The average Western country affected by terrorism last year saw 2.6 incidents claim 31 lives. The average non-Western country saw 10 incidents of terrorism claim 223 lives. As a basis of comparison, France, the Western country hit the hardest last year, saw 7 incidents claim 147 deaths. So by these metrics, the situation in the average non-Western country is worse than the situation in the hardest-hit Western country. Are the media covering it? 

Criticism of the media hit its first fever pitch early last year, after wide coverage of the January 7 Charlie Hebdo shootings in Paris. Over 22,000 articles were written about the 12 individuals killed. On the same day, at least 38 people were killed in a bomb blast in Yemen. The number of articles reporting about it? 565.

In fact, a terror incident in the West does not even have to result in the loss of life to garner more coverage than the Yemen attack did. In August, there was 10 times more coverage of an attack in Oignies, France, in which no people were killed. And there were about five times more articles written about an attack without fatalities in December in London. Overall, only one of the 21 terror incidents in the West had a larger loss of life than the blast in Yemen, but almost all (18 out of 21) garnered more coverage. And not just a little more—they garnered on average 16 times more coverage than the Yemen attack.

*  *  *

Taking a wider lens to this data, there have been 21 incidents of terrorism claiming 246 lives in Western countries last year. On average, for each of these incidents, approximately 12 people were killed and 7,788 articles were written, which corresponds to approximately 665 articles per person who died in a Western terrorist incident. This extent of coverage can create a great deal of awareness and empathy. This, in turn, can drive pressure from around the world on political leaders to protect citizens from future attacks.

But in non-Western countries, where approximately 22 individuals were killed in each terror incident, there were, on average, only 1,305 articles per incident. Comparing this to the previous data about Western countries, there are about six times fewer articles written about incidents of terrorism in non-Western countries. In addition, there are 11 times fewer articles written about each non-Western death.

If the number of articles written is any expression of how much the media care about a victim of terrorism, then the media care 11 times less about victims of non-Western terror incidents. This, in turn, robs media consumers of opportunities to care about these terror incidents and to pressure our governments to take action to keep people everywhere safe from terrorism. And, I would argue, leaving areas of the world largely unreported about allows terrorism to thrive in those areas unabated and makes us all less safe.

Breaking this data down by region demonstrates another disturbing trend. First, the number of articles per incident varies wildly with the region of the incident. Incidents in North America and Western Europe appear to receive wall-to-wall coverage, while incidents basically everywhere else are relatively under-reported. Secondly, the number of articles by fatality varies even more wildly, and disfavors non-Western countries aggressively. When individuals fall victim to terrorism in Africa, South Asia, the Balkans, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia, it appears the media don’t deem their deaths as worthy of report as when individuals die in Eastern Europe, Western Europe, Australia, North America, and East Asia.

(It’s worth noting that in East Asia, three incidents of terrorism led to a single fatality and 2,726 articles. This may not be representative of what media coverage in Asia would look like if there had been more incidents, or an incident with a larger death toll.)

It makes intuitive sense that the media should give more attention to terror incidents with larger losses of life. There is some evidence that the death toll predicted coverage for the 21 incidents of terrorism in Western countries in 2015. There was about a 42 percent correlation between the mortality rate for these incidents and the amount of coverage. In statistical parlance, the death toll of an incident explained 18 percent of the variance in the amount of coverage that incident received (representing a notable, but barely statistically significant, relationship).

Coming into this analysis, I had hypothesized that fatalities would predict coverage most thoroughly in the countries that some conservatives describe as the “true West”—those in North America, Western Europe, and Australia. These are the Western countries that are the most culturally and economically related (and the ones I thought that media elites might have the most empathy toward).

The data provide strong support for this hypothesis. Among “true Western” countries, the number of fatalities predicted 86 percent of the variance in the amount of coverage each incident received (representing a remarkably strong and statistically significant relationship).

But the number of fatalities seems virtually unrelated to the amount of coverage in non-Western countries (whether one included Eastern Europe as “non-Western” or not). In the 313 (or 319) incidents of terrorism in non-Western countries, the number of fatalities predicted less than 1 percent of the variance in the amount of coverage they received. If our hearts are what make us cover attacks more when the loss of life is greater, then when attacks happen in non-Western countries, our hearts just aren’t in it.

And the tone of coverage seemed to reflect it. Terror incidents in non-Western country were often written in a detached style. It almost seemed like there was a formula for non-Western coverage: weapon, location, death count, group responsible, political ramifications. Articles frequently seemed like a variation on this theme: “A bomb blew up here; a certain number of security forces, civilians, and terrorists died; a specific terrorist group claimed responsibility; the attack affected this broader political issue.” Much of the coverage seemed to be focused on the terrorist group responsible, and very little discussed the victims. But when Westerners were killed, whether at home or abroad, coverage seemed to have more heart. Consider one terror incident in Afghanistan last May; it claimed four lives, but the top stories about it focused on the death of one British man Typical headlines were “British national among four killed in Kabul suicide car bomb” and “Briton killed in Kabul car bombing.”

A similar theme emerged in coverage of an August attack in Afghanistan that claimed 9 Afghan and 3 American lives; and of a November attack in Israel that killed 4 Israelis and one American; and of a November attack that claimed 27 lives in Mali, one of which was American; and so on. I did not come across a similar article in, say, the BBC with the headline, “Iranian national dies in French terror attack.” The attention to Western lives seems paired with an erasure of non-Western ones. And when non-Westerners die without notice, it leaves all of us unable to care and compel our governments to act.

One argument frequently advanced to defend the gap in coverage is that coverage in some countries is higher because terrorism in those countries is less common. That argument is most frequently used to explain why the November 13 Paris attack was more widely covered than the Beirut attack that occurred the day before. But this argument is both flawed and unsupported.

Looking at Paris and Beirut, first, the attack in Paris wasn’t actually novel. France had already sustained five terrorist attacks in 2015 before the attack in November, and one of them had been in Paris. Lebanon, in contrast, had only sustained two, and neither had been in Beirut. And Lebanon is not the only country where a novel terror attack in a capital city received relatively scant coverage. The first attack last year in N’Djamena, Chad—which was, as NBC reported (in a formulaic article), “the first to hit the Chadian capital in years”—resulted in 27 dead, but was covered in only 674 articles. The same was true for the attacks in Bahrain, Bosnia, and Macedonia (two in each country), which received on average about 500 articles, even as they claimed on average about five lives. “Novel” terrorist attacks in non-Western countries often received far less coverage than less “novel” attacks in Western ones. Anecdotes aside, if attack novelty was to predict the extent of coverage, we would expect a correlation between the number of incidents in a country and the amount of coverage each incident received in that country. But in this data, that correlation was statistically insignificant. Novelty didn’t explain the coverage gap. The coverage gap seems driven instead by a simple bias toward Western countries.

Citizens cannot care about what they do not know. The media’s demonstrated bias against covering terrorism in non-Western countries leaves consumers unable to care about the victims in those countries. Media have advanced empirically unsupported excuses for this biased coverage for too long. Institutions must do a better job of reporting about terrorism in non-Western countries, and they must do so with the same level of frequency and emotional depth they bring to coverage in Western countries. Only then can citizens be expected to galvanize their governments to protect people everywhere from terrorism.

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