For U.S. Media, Victims of ISIL Terror in Europe Are 1,200 Percent More Newsworthy Than Those in Middle East
Since the back-to-back ISIL attacks in Beirut and Paris last in November of last year, many in media have noted the disparity in the outpouring of grief and coverage when ISIL attacks happen in Europe versus the Middle East. Recent attacks in Brussels have led others, including Salon’s Ben Norton and The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald to note a similar phenomenon: The U.S. media simply values European lives over those in the Middle East. And because neither Brussels or France are English-speaking nations or are in the greater United States, this can only lead to one conclusion: race is an essential factor when U.S. media determine what terror attacks to cover. Predominantly white countries simply matter more.
This racism is heavily informed by the U.S.’ ongoing wars in the Middle East. Since President Obama has taken office, he has launched seven bombing campaigns of Muslim-majority countries. This decades-long war positioning against the "other” has helped normalized deaths in the Middle East even beyond that of routine racism. But how wide is this disparity? I have attempted to quantify the gap in coverage using two comparable examples from Europe and the Middle East in the past six months.
First, two major ISIL attacks on Europe that killed a total of 160: The Brussels attack this month that killed 31 and the Paris attack in November that killed 129. Second, two major ISIL attacks in the Middle East that have killed 152: the Beirut bombing that killed 43 in November and the Ankara bombing that killed 109 in October 2015. The Beirut and Brussels attacks were of comparable size, as were the Paris and Ankara attacks.
I used the three most popular newspapers in the United States, the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, and one of the most popular news sites for some diversity, Buzzfeed. I searched for mentions, not stories (first on LexisNexis, then double-checked on Google and the websites' own internal search functions), a decision that likely inflated in favor of covering ISIL attacks in the Middle East since a sizable portion of Beirut bombing mentions were specifically done in reference to Paris since they occurred only a day apart. The coverage scope was four days after the given ISIL attack.
I used deaths (deciding not to include injuries which can be difficult to pin down in different regions), as a proxy for how objectively valuable a news story should be.
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The result: the U.S. media covers ISIL attacks on predominantly white countries approximately 1,200 percent more than it covers attacks in the Middle East. The disparity is almost certainly higher due to the uptick in mentions of the Beirut attacks in relation to the Paris attacks.
Some, such as Vox’s Max Fisher and the Washington Post’s Brian J. Phillips have attempted to brush aside this disparity or mock those who point it out as “tragedy hipsters,” pointing out that because large-scale terror attacks in Europe are far more rare they are more newsworthy. While this may have something to do with it, certainly this can't account for a disparity of 12 to 1.
Is it more likely that the editors of the publications are able to recall all the ISIL attacks in Beirut over the past year (one less than those on France, to be clear) or that they have a vaguely orientalist “cycle of violence” prejudice that manifests in how stories are covered Violence in the Middle East is presented as routine, factored into people's daily lives, whereas violence visited upon white Europeans is a massive disruption of the normal order, and thus more newsworthy. These assumptions, even if they have a shred of truth, are largely informed by this orientalism and, by extension, racism, and shouldn’t be a stand-in for reality, much less a criteria for what should and shouldn’t be covered.