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Nov 21, 2015

Why comparing Paris to Beirut both misses the point and makes sense

After the first shock of the devastating terrorist attacks in Paris had waned, criticism about the unequal attention the victims in France received compared to victims of similar attacks elsewhere in the world quickly surfaced. Why did President Obama give a public announcement relatively soon after the attacks in Paris but had said little about the equally horrible bombings in Beirut one day earlier? Why did Facebook have a Safety Check in the case of Paris but not in other cases? Why was there not a similar global outpour of sympathy for the victims of, for example, the even more lethal attacks at a university in Kenya earlier this year? It seemed that the lives of (white) Europeans are worth more than that of others around the world, in particular that of Muslims.

But differences in grief and shock about the French attacks are not necessarily an expression of how life is valued. Critics pointing out the hypocrisy of being concerned about Paris but less about Beirut, or any other equally devastating killings around the world, do miss an important point. One of the central factors regarding the newsworthiness of an event, both for media outlets and for media consumers, is the proximity of the event – both in absolute terms, i.e. geographical distance, and in relative terms, i.e. a sense of identification. Most people care more about a car crash close to home than a similar crash in a distant location. Compared to the attacks in Beirut, many could more easily see themselves in Paris on a Friday night (or associate it with a similar situation closer to home) than in Beirut – or at a university in Kenya. Conversely, for someone with strong ties to Lebanon – and less to France – identification with the bombings in Beirut may be much stronger. We just more easily identify with an event that we could picture ourselves in. Many expressing their outrage over the unequal share of attention devoted to the different attacks too easily forget about this logic.

That said, white, Western and/or Christian victims often receive an unequal share of the attention – even though the victims in Paris were by no means all white. Some form of (racial) preference that goes beyond a sense of proximity may well shape differences in attention devoted to attacks around the world. One way or the other, then, politicians, media outlets and also Facebook should become more sensitive to the impact of their messages. Was Facebook’s tool the result of their algorithms going in overdrive due to postings about Paris or did it result from ad hoc decision taken at management level? I imagine the latter. With accountholders all over the world, they may want to rethink how to convey a message of equality when it comes to devoting attention to (horrendous) events in the world. Politicians would also do good to be more outspoken about attacks in case they may not directly identify with the victims and/or the setting. The inhabitants of the (multicultural) nation they represent may care. Or with news travelling fast – helped by the widespread use of social media – they may want to give some thoughts to how their comments are perceived elsewhere in the world. It doesn’t harm to give people the impression that their lives are equally appreciated after all!