The horrendous terrorist attacks in Paris and the resulting blanket media coverage have once again raised questions about the proportionality of news coverage when it comes to reporting deadly events.
The argument goes that the Paris attacks are unfairly given more coverage than similar events in other places around the world – such as last Thursday’s bombings in Beirut, which killed 44 people, or the shooting of 147 people at a university in Kenya in April, to name just two examples.
And as large numbers of Facebook users apply a French flag filter to their profile pictures, others are questioning why it did not offer Syrian flags to show solidarity with the victims of terrorist attacks in that country.
As a long-time observer of how news media cover death and dying, such disproportionate coverage is not particularly surprising – even if it continues to be a source of personal disappointment for someone who believes all people are equal and should be treated as such.
The question is: what should, or could, be done about it? To simply say journalists should report in equal amounts on such deaths, regardless of where they occurred, may be nice from a normative perspective. But is it realistic?
The rise of analytics and metrics
Journalists produce news they believe their audiences will read, watch or listen to – and increasingly, on social media, like, share or recommend.
In times past, these judgements were generally based on gut feelings about what would interest readers. Today, newsrooms across the world have access to every minute detail about what stories are actually successful through elaborate analytics tools. And, increasingly, these so-called web metrics are having an impact on news coverage.
I recently conducted interviews with journalists across a variety of Australian newsrooms about the use of metrics and the influence that such audience figures are beginning to have on news coverage.
Journalists tended to be quite cautious about the feedback they receive and were at pains to point out that these were only a part of the toolkit and could be used to make stories more relevant. But many also acknowledged the potentially worrying influence such feedback could have.
One editor told me that a story about a multiple murder-suicide was tracking extremely well online, until it emerged that the people involved were Indigenous. From there on, the editor said, the story’s readership figures dropped drastically.
In this instance, it didn’t lead the newsroom to drop the story. But, more broadly, audience figures increasingly play a role in many newsrooms in determining which stories to place most prominently.
Caring about ‘people like us’
The worrying sign is that audience metrics are now providing empirical evidence for decisions that journalists used to make based on their hunches. In the days before detailed audience feedback, it was easy to blame journalists for applying their own stereotypes to the coverage of foreign deaths.
Now, armed with empirical evidence, journalists can actually claim that no-one is interested in deaths from countries that are “not like us” and that they are merely responding to human nature. As American author Susan Moeller once argued:
We tend to care most about those closest to us, most like us. We care about those with whom we identify.
Newsrooms have applied rudimentary principles for decades when it comes to reporting foreign deaths. Australian journalist Stephen Romei, for example, once criticised formulas such as:
… one Australian is worth five Americans, 20 Italians, 50 Japanese, 100 Russians, 500 Indians and 1000 Africans.
In the case of the Paris attacks, other factors also came into the equation. That they took place at a concert hall, cafes and restaurants and a football stadium increased the “it could have happened to me” factor.
Add to this the unexpectedness of the events, the political, economic and cultural ties with France, and the story was always going to be huge.
Audience must share the blame
But journalists are not the only ones to blame for the disproportionate coverage. If more people actually read stories about Beirut or Kenya, it would be more difficult for the news media to avoid such stories.
To change news coverage, a change in people’s mindset is also needed – and, with that, a change in their empathy with others.
One might argue that the only reason audiences are not interested in stories about people who are not “like us” is because they have been conditioned by media coverage. This may well be true to a certain extent, and I do not want in any way to completely exonerate journalists in this.
But blaming only the media would also be simplistic. It is important to see the impact that active consumers of news can have on the news, now that actual audience behaviour is increasingly impacting on journalistic decision-making. There are opportunities for change, but the responsibility lies with both audiences and the media for that to happen.