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.