Plenty of people have been asking why a massacre in France should get greater media coverage in Britain than massacres in the Lebanon, Iraq and Kenya.
They have pointed to the fact that last Thursday, 44 people died in suicide bombings in Beirut. In August, 67 people were killed by a truck bomb in Sadr City in north-eastern Iraq. In April, 147 people, most of them students, were shot dead at Garissa University in north-eastern Kenya.
All of these horrific incidents were reported by the British media. But they didn’t get much more than a newspaper headline and a couple of minutes on TV and radio bulletins.
Although the downing of the Russian plane in Sinai, in which 224 people perished, got a reasonable show in papers and on TV, neither it nor the other tragedies received the wall-to-wall coverage granted to the Paris attacks.
So why was that? Here’s what I wrote in my London Evening Standard column. One obvious reason is proximity. France is close to home. It is not only our closest continental neighbour but we are also linked through our membership of the European Union.
Long ago, our former enemy from across the Channel became our ally and despite not sharing a common language, we do share a political and social culture born in the age of enlightenment.
It is also undeniable, if somewhat unpalatable to many sensitive people, that mass deaths in faraway places, whether due to terrorism or natural disaster, rarely engender big UK media interest.
There are odd exceptions, such as the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But its effect was unprecedented, with more than 300,000 deaths, including – it should ne noted – several British victims. Some large-scale earthquakes do grab attention, including those in Chile and Haiti in 2010 and Japan in 2011.
But the cliché cannot be denied: all news is local. And it is audience interest (or lack of interest) that dictates decisions made by editors. In pre-internet days, it could be argued that journalists made their calls based on hunches about their readers’ and viewers’ appetites.
Now, with the availability of web metrics, it is possible for them to gauge exactly the level of audience engagement with any given story.
It is true that media coverage helps to stimulate interest, but only up to a point. People will not click on to a story unless they really want to – a point made by Folker Hanusch in a piece for The Conversation, following newsroom research in Australia.
Nor should we overlook the truth, which some find distressing and unacceptable, that we tend to identify more closely with “people like us” – people who share our western culture. And, I am sure, that facet of human nature holds fast elsewhere in the world. People in other cultures are also more interested in what happens to those who are closest to them.
I recall that many commentators pointed to what they regarded as disproportionate coverage, in both the United States and Britain, of the 71 Americans who died during hurricane Sandy in 2012. The 162 who died elsewhere, in seven other countries, were overlooked.
There were two other aspects to the French carnage that we shouldn’t overlook. First, there was the indiscriminate nature of the murders in places where people congregate for leisure. On everyone’s lips surely was the thought that it could have been me.
Second, Britain has had its share of outrages perpetrated by Islamic extemists. That would have stimulated another thought – it could happen here. In a sense, the French victims, as distinct from those in the atrocities in the Lebanon, Iraq and Kenya, were “our” victims.
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