Terrorism: A Media Double Standard

Why is mainstream media determined to continuously play this dirty game in news reporting when they are supposed to be the neutral middle man, holding a mirror up to society?


Image Credit: HonestReporting via Flickr

After having a good gander on Storify, spending hours rifling through news articles and specific tweets about the twin bomb attacks in Beirut, Lebanon, in November, I was simply disgusted with the sheer volume of media coverage on the coinciding Paris terror attacks that subsumed much of the attention from the Beirut bombings. And why did Paris get its own Facebook Safety Check feature enabled (a new feature designed for world disasters to notify your online friendship circle of your safety), when Beirut wasn’t given this opportunity and hundreds of warzones around the world are witnessing deadly attacks happening every day?

This was a glimpse at the double standards present in the media that is becoming worryingly predictable. This imbalance in not only attention and coverage, but also sympathy, is something which makes me question journalistic choices and the language of terrorism.

One simple explanation for the heightened coverage of the Paris attacks is the higher death toll: 130. After all, the basic premise behind media reportage is ‘if it bleeds, it leads.’ So, logically, ‘the more it bleeds, the more obviously it should lead.’ A report by The Atlantic on the study of natural disasters, found that the level of news coverage of an event correlates with that country’s familiarity with the place that the news concerns. This may also explain the much talked about empathy gap. Similarly, it has been suggested that journalists and audiences suffer from a “novelty bias”. In other words, if something isn’t new or shocking, and happening in an unpredictable place, then it’ll fall a little flat for audiences. But the most alarming yet most plausible reasoning, is that:

“There is a troubling tribal, or racial, component to familiarity: People tend to perk up when they see themselves in the victims.”

I think this holds true for most news coverage. After all, we’ve gotta look out for number one, no? An attack on human nature, and one closer to home, is going to be priority news.

However, it wouldn’t be fair to centre all reasoning as audience/consumer driven. Journalists may be consciously manipulating the language surrounding terrorism and framing news pieces with an agenda, which only exacerbates the audience/consumer driven reasons. In other words, the double standard is a vicious cycle that I reluctantly predict is irreversible. Once the consumer sets the bar for what they want, the journalist feeds this need, and inevitably, will simultaneously shape and intensify consumer demand. And once the damage is done, there is no going back. The fear is that journalists have such great power with their words that their words can run away with them.

Taking a look at the language different newsrooms use to shape the events in Paris and Beirut, you don’t have to be a genius to see agenda setting. The Wall Street Journal calls the targeted Beirut neighbourhood of Bourj al-Barajneh, “an area that is a bastion for the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah.” (a group involved in the Syria war, fighting against ISIS). The BBC similarly talks about the “stronghold of the Shia Islamist Hezbollah movement” and discussion about the war and violence dominates their articles, too. In comparison, when the Paris attacks were reported, usurping Beirut in the headlines, reportage centred around human interest stories and capitalised on the shock-factor by focusing on terror and grief such as demonstrated flawlessly by the International Business Times, and The New Yorker, announcing “Terror Strikes in Paris”.

Curiously, it took twelve paragraphs for the BBC to mention anything about “terrorism” in one of their Beirut articles, and even then, they attribute reports of Hezbollah’s fight against “terrorists” to another news agency and use inverted commas. Comparatively, the BBC take five paragraphs to say that French President, Francois Hollande, “vowed to wage a “merciless” fight against terrorism”. Here, the BBC legitimises the Paris attacks as acts of terrorism, whereas their coverage of the Beirut attacks as an act of terrorism, seems a little more hesitant, dubious and lazy. Likewise, The New Yorker, as mentioned, states “terror” so early on, it is part of the headline! It’s obvious to see that such nuances in language and journalistic choices can shape audience perception and shape further coverage, and the future perception of those countries.

The conversation doesn’t end with terror attacks associated with the war on terror in the East. The double standard applies even amongst political movements in the West. Again, examining the news coverage of the siege of federal government buildings in Oregon, by a group of armed white militiamen, has aggravated the #BlackLivesMatter movement because of the media opting to use words other than “terrorists”, such as “anti-government activists”, and calling them “peaceful”, despite the fact that they come with weapons and say they will only attack if provoked. The social movement has outlined the hypocrisy of the media coverage where they are labelled “black thugs” protesting, unarmed. Where is the logic?! This has provoked some people to question what would be the language used if these people were black? Or muslim? (Check out my Storify where I touch upon it a little more, evidencing the discontent felt on Twitter, about the double standards).

Engaged members of the community or not, these people are armed and have taken federal government buildings hostage, yet they say that they do not intend to be violent. This screams the same argument that gun owners around the world use: I have a gun for protection but do not intend to use it unless I have to. This is the same pro-gun argument that people laugh at for the simple fact that guns are an item for warfare. If these militiamen claim they are peaceful then guns would not be a necessary accessory in their protest. Therefore, the media refusal to call these “occupiers” dangerous and “terrorists” to their community (where schools have been closed for weeks as a result), is an abomination. I despair that newsrooms still churn out articles which proliferate stereotypes and manipulate consumers like putty in their hands.

Where journalists have a key role as the fourth estate, they have the responsibility to also report with fairness and impartiality, not fuelling political agendas. That said, I might be a bit of an idealist that journalists will always act with complete neutrality. Here’s to hoping for a positive change in 2016!

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