In the last week, there have been two horrific terrorist attacks on civilians. In Beirut, 43 people were killed in a bombing at a hotel. In Paris, over 130 people were killed in a series of suicide bombings and shootings in various parts of the city.
One of these events gained immediate international attention. Attention from the “mainstream” media, from social media, and from people on the street across the developed world. This event was in Paris.
Beirut, on the whole, only received attention after the Paris attacks, when many on social media started questioning the disparity.
As Managing Editor of Global Citizen, and a member of the media for over a decade, I have had to wrestle with these questions almost every day. It’s outrageous when innocent people die. Yet, the zeitgeist, or the mind of the global community, is only captured and mobilized by certain events, while others slip by relatively unnoticed on the global stage.
This needs to change. Violence is criminal wherever it happens. It is a crime against the victims, and particularly on the scale of both of these terrorist activities, it is a crime against humanity. This belief is not based on religion or culture or nationality. Leaders across the world have been calling it a crime against humanity, including, notably, Iran’s President. Showing solidarity is not a “Western” concept or a “Christian concept.” It is a global concept that cuts across all divides.
So why did the world as a whole seem to come together to #StandWithParis, immediately, but only take minor note of the attack in Beirut? Why has it taken 3 to 4 days to see Facebook filters change from all about Paris, to a mix of the French flag and the Lebanese flag?
It’s hard to fully explain but here is my attempt to break it down. My hope here is not to justify why one event got more attention than the other, but rather to look at the factors that lead to this outcome so that we, as a global community of citizens of the world, can better understand ourselves and make sure that our outrage, compassion and advocacy focuses on protecting ALL innocent people from the threat of violence, rather than just those in events that get massive coverage.
To break this down I present you with an equation of sorts, which attempts to shape the understanding of why some events get global attention while others do not.
(Death Toll) x (Shock Factor) + (Audience Connection) + (Media Coverage format) x (Potential for change) = Global Attention
Now let's dive into this tragic formula, and understand how the world can break free from it.
Working in media, the phrase “if it bleeds it leads” is one I’ve heard more than a few times. To be sure, I have not worked in a newsroom that actually used this explicitly to guide stories (as many movies and pop culture depictions would lead you to believe), but the concept is there underneath it all.
If there is a death toll, then a story is judged to be more salient than something that does not have a death toll.
In the comparison of Paris and Beirut, Paris did have the larger death toll. So you might conclude that this is why the public outrage over Paris dwarfed that of the reaction to Beirut.
But if this is true, then why did events like the deadly attack on a Kenyan University that killed almost 150 people in April fail to gain international traction and outrage? In fact, Global Citizen ran an article that explicitly asked this question at the time. The story we ran got huge traction from our followers online, but still the public reaction was significantly smaller than that of Paris. Athletes in the US were not writing on their shoes about the Kenya attack.
Then if it’s not simply about death toll, it must be something else that explains the different reactions, but it is part of the “formula” that leads to understanding public outrage.
Discussing this factor is going to get me into trouble. So prepare yourself. If I was the type to believe this was a good idea, I might even say trigger warning be prepared, but I’m not, so I’m going to assume you (the reader) are an adult and can handle this discussion.
Ask yourself, did the Beirut bombing shock you? Is it possible to admit that an event that killed 43 innocent people was horrific yet not truly surprising? If we look at the cold hard facts it must be.
Lebanon has been a nation plagued by violence and terrorism. Despite huge strides made by the nation to rid itself of its all too recent civil war, and the violence that erupted from conflicts with Israel and Hezbollah over the last decade, a bombing in Lebanon, or in the general region, is something that is all too common.
Compare that to the type of violence striking Paris. The death toll in Paris is the largest from an act of violence since World War II. This may be tinged with a sense of “first world self-entitlement” (and if that’s not a concept, I am declaring it one right now), but the idea that Paris would see this type of violence issurprising.
From an angle of compassion there should be absolutely no difference in how we, as people, process tragic events. The loss of any life, particularly that of innocent life, is something our global community should reject at all times. But human nature still plays a part in this, and when something is shocking or surprising, it will be something that people pay more attention to.
The issue for people who consider themselves to be global citizens in their attitudes is: how does the world stop seeing violence against innocents as routine. How does the world come together to say this must stop EVERYWHERE.
It’s harder than it sounds, but this attitude shift is going to be key to mobilizing the world to stop extremism.
The Beirut bombing was covered in the region. It was covered in news outlets across Lebanon and neighboring nations. It was also covered by international media. The difference, it seems, is the audience response. Media is as much driven by its audience’s interest as it is by the events of the day.
Looking at mass media markets in the US and Europe, as well as the mass online communities in these places, connection to the event is a key factor to understand.
Looking at it from a US-centric viewpoint, it is easy to say that more people from the United States have been to Paris than have been to Lebanon. The same can be said of Canadians, British, and many other Northern European, or North American nations. Or, frankly, almost any nation not in the regional vicinity of Lebanon. And for every person in these countries who have travelled to Paris, there are probably 5 more that actively think of traveling to Paris. (The “city of love” is a pretty popular destination.)
While I am a person who actively wants to visit Lebanon (my parents have been lucky enough to go and LOVE it), I do not believe I am in the majority of “average Americans.” Nor in the majority of people around the world.
Beyond that, the Eiffel tower, and the images of Paris are globally known. The city and its symbols have been romanticized by films, historical events, political movements and mass marketed consumerism. The same cannot be said of the beautiful landmarks (of which there are many) of Lebanon.
It is sad to admit, but Paris plays larger in the global psyche than Beirut on any given day. When tragedy strikes both, this different status in global awareness plays a defining role in the scale of response.
A key to fixing this is for people to be more interested in the world. Paris is a stunning place to visit but so is Lebanon. And for that matter so is Botswana, Indonesia and Chile (if this was a list of awesome places to visit, it would never end).
The world is getting smaller and smaller through the ability to travel and the ability to connect digitally. It is on us, as global citizens, to keep being curious about everywhere. Because, as people learn about places they inherently care more about them. This caring extends beyond an interest in pretty photos, and it becomes caring about government policies that direct aid and support to these places. This level of interest is crucial for mobilizing support to stop extremism and violence in the places where it is an everyday reality.
Connection to a place helps explain why the Paris attacks became an immediate global story. Now the world needs its people to connect to more places so the pressure to end violence covers every nation and protects all of the world’s people.
Media coverage format: Breaking vs. Developing
Just as media organizations react to an event with a consideration of how much connection their audience has to the event, they also react to the event differently because of the ways they can cover it. This is combined with the fact that audience attention lasts some function of how long the actual event in question lasts. i.e. if an event is over in a minute, coverage is usually shorter than if an event lasts hours. If you’d like a sports comparison here, Ronda Rousey losing her MMA fight in 2 rounds on Saturday would theoretically get a shorter window of coverage than any one of the NFL games in the US this past weekend, because the longer NFL games give more opportunity to analyze and find related story lines.
To illustrate this in terms of non-sports news, think of how much attention is given to a person dying versus a person who has been abducted. When a person is abducted (or held hostage) media teams can do immediate breaking news coverage, and then they can gear up for extended coverage that trumps the rest of the news cycle.
The violence at the US Navy Yards a few years back is a prime example of this. That rampage lasted an extended period of time, giving media organizations a window to “gear up” and cover the event. Because of this window, and the deployment of coverage assets, news organizations were more likely to continue coverage to get some long-term value out of the effort taken to deploy coverage assets (like reports, analysts and video trucks).
The same thing applies to the difference between the bombing in Beirut and the attack in Paris. While both were tragic, the Beirut story was more straightforward: suicide bombs kill people. It happened suddenly, and then it was over.
By comparison, the Paris story unfolded over hours. Gunmen attacked multiple places, there were conflicting reports, the President of the nation was in close proximity to the violence then moved to safety, and global leaders, including US President Barack Obama, were making statements while the violence was still ongoing.
The extended format of the tragedy in Paris meant the story was not just a headline in a breaking news segment, but rather a live unfolding saga that gripped people’s attention over the course of hours.
This factor is NOT a judgement call. This is not to say that the media should or should not have paid attention to one event or the other, it is a realistic assessment of the formats of coverage possible on the two events.
It may sound like I am excusing mainstream media for focusing so much on Paris and comparatively so little on Beirut, but the structure and unfolding nature of the Paris event inherently engendered extended coverage and attention from the media and social media. It was an event that terrorized an entire city. It sent people scurrying into strangers’ homes to seek shelter. Beirut was a more self-contained event that shocked and terrified a city, but did not have the unfolding nature that Paris did.
This is important to understand when breaking down public attention and outrage.
Potential for change
Another tough question for you, which event will be more likely to create larger, international change: Beirut or Paris?
The answer to this question may lie in two of the previous factors I discussed: shock and connection. As leaders of nations see their people shocked and appalled by an event, their natural inclination is to answer that outrage with some sort of action.
Inside Beirut, leaders are calling for change as citizens demand change. This outrage and call for change has been going on for quite a while. The threat of ISIS has been a real and present danger for civilians and governments across the region. The bombing will strengthen those calls for action, but those calls already existed before the event.
By comparison, the ISIS threat for most people in the United States and Europe has been a tangential one. One that was happening “somewhere else.” While the refugee crisis in Europe brought an aspect of the crisis literally to the doors of Europeans, it was a crisis about how to deal with these people fleeing violence, rather than the direct threat of ISIS.
The Syrian conflict that gave rise to ISIS is in part civil war, in part protest against authoritarianism, and in part an actual territorial war between Syria and ISIS (as both the rebels who oppose Bashar al-Assad and Assad’s forces would consider themselves the true representatives of “Syria” and both are fighting ISIS at various points). This confusing and terrible conflict has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives. It is so confusing that even top policy experts have trouble distinguishing which are “good” actors and which are “bad.” By extension, the American and European public at large have been even more confused and at this point are almost resigned to the violence and death.
Having ISIS claim responsibility for the death of over 130 people in the streets of Paris may change that. Now the threat is real and present to the leaders of Europe and North America, because it is real and present to the people of their nations.
Yes, it is absurd to admit that 130 people dying might change global policy when literally hundreds of thousands of deaths have not. But this is a world that saw the Arab Spring start not because of the movement of armies, but because of the self-immolation of one fruit seller. It is a fact of human history that one death, be it the Arch Duke Ferdinand and World War I or a fruit seller and the Arab Spring, can change the course of humanity.
It is possible, and for those who have long advocated for a more active role by the international community in Syria a strong hope, that the deaths in Paris will galvanize a change in US and European policies.
By this measure, the Paris attacks may be a turning point, changing the approach to ISIS that those in Beirut have been calling for since before the devastating bombing.
It would be my sincerest hope that the world did not need the death of innocents to galvanize an effort to end violence, but sometimes this is the hard truth the world lives with.
This potential for change is a huge factor in understanding the scale of response, and the impact it will have on the global psyche.
In a perfect, or at least a better world, there would be no innocent victims of violence. There would be no debate over which tragedy sparked or “deserved” more public outrage and attention, because violence would not touch the innocent.
Unfortunately, we do not live in that world--yet. But we can. The world community can commit to ending violence. The world community can commit to protecting innocent civilians. Groups like ISIS can be fought, both on the ground and in the minds of the people who support it.
Those who become extremists do not start as extremists. They are not born to hate, they are taught to hate. They are sometimes cradled by poverty and raised by desperation to latch onto hate, so there is someone to blame for the injustice of their circumstances.
Ending extreme poverty. Building societies that educate students in schools rather than pseudo-religious institutions that breed intended ignorance. Communities that offer young people a chance at a job rather than the path of the gun or the bomb.
These are tangible things that can be developed. Humanity has built peaceful societies from the rubble of violence time and time again. All it takes is commitment to each other. To look beyond our differences and beyond the actions of extremists to see the fellow person threatened by that violence.
Every person on the planet is at risk of terrorism--Paris and Beirut tragically prove this. Take this opportunity of collective outrage over both events and commit yourself to harnessing it to build a world where there is no more violence in Beirut or in Paris or anywhere. A world where the injustice of extreme poverty is ended, and where education and development can flourish.
You can do this by joining Global Citizen. By committing to the global movement to end extreme poverty by 2030. To deliver the world promised by the Global Goals that the planet’s leaders signed onto this past September.
Violence must stop. It can be stopped. You are the key to making that happen.