ON THE MEDIA: Commentary: When faraway tragedies are ignored, it’s not always the media’s fault

April 16, 2016

Their posts will say things like …

“These Attacks Happened Days Before Brussels — But You Probably Didn’t Hear About Them.”

“Over 40 innocent people (mostly children and women) killed in today’s terrorist attack … Any #JeSuisLahore?”

This belief that the West does not care very much about people killed in faraway places is mostly true. But the idea that the fault lies with the Western media is an attempt to use journalists as convenient scapegoats.

As one Twitter user from Chicago wrote: “It’s unacceptable that when terrorism strikes in countries that arent part of the western world there is no media coverage #PrayForNigeria”

That’s just wrong. You were told, you just didn’t pay attention.

When the Boko Haram attack occurred in January, the Tribune reported it online and in print. But no throngs flocked to the story through our homepage and tweets. One of the three comments left on the story even pointed out that no one seems to care about such an act of barbarism.

Years back, when the abduction of hundreds of schoolgirls first put Boko Haram on many Western minds, we saw very little engagement with our stories until a social media campaign #BringBackOurGirls started receiving attention from the first lady and fashion models. I still recall one editor here at the Tribune describing it thusly, weeks after the news broke, “I think the world is starting to catch up to that story.”

The world might have caught up at the time, but it appears to have fallen behind again.

Some will say it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy — that if we treated Nigeria the way we treated the Boston Marathon bombing, people would care. It’s a fair rebuke.

Here is what we did not do for the Easter attack in Pakistan that we might for an attack like the one in Brussels:

We did not send a news alert, and arguably we should have. We did not tweet every conceivable update to the story. We did not elevate it to the centerpiece of our website, or change our Web layout to accommodate the crush of information and reaction we expect from a major story. We did put a headline on our printed front page, though it referred readers to our Nation & World section for the story itself.

Our article on the Pakistan bombing was promoted as the second most important story on our Web homepage (just below news about the mayor’s unprecedented end-around to appoint a new interim police superintendent). Headlines made it clear this was an attack aimed at Christian children celebrating Easter in a major city. But the story was never our most-read by homepage visitors, or shared widely on Facebook. Not even close.

Stories about Chicago’s apartment building parking glut and a Brooklyn letter carrier being harassed by the NYPD on his route were more popular, at least among our online readership.

The truth is, most people didn’t seem to care much about the carnage in Pakistan. This wasn’t a uniquely American problem either. The same thing happened at The Guardian, a British paper, according to an article Monday by an online news editor on Medium.

If the reader response to the Pakistan story had been anything like what we saw for the Brussels or Boston or Paris terror attacks, we would have given it wall-to-wall coverage. My newspaper colleagues and I ache to be relevant and valuable in your lives. Literally, our jobs depend on it.

Don’t get me wrong: We will cover the important news whether or not it attracts a large audience online. But reader interest does help shape the size of the spotlight we offer to certain stories.

It’s pointless, even arrogant, for me to criticize the readers for what they’re interested in.

No one deserves shame for caring about places they have been to, or might go, or where they share a common cultural and political heritage. People generally care about news that most directly affects them. Which means they pay more attention to the Chicago Police Department than an offshoot of the Pakistani Taliban.

And yes, Western media have their biases. Absolutely. I don’t speak Urdu so I have no idea what to look for on Twitter to see if there is some #JeSuisLahore hashtag trending in support of the Pakistan victims.

The news media do a lot of criticizing. Of elected officials, of art, of ballplayers. Media deserve healthy criticism of our own.

One thing we have learned is that the complexity of world news is difficult and the media — myself included — have not done a good job of helping readers understand. These places are foreign, after all, and need to be better contextualized. It’s one of the reasons The Washington Post’s “9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask” story, and a similar one about Ukraine, were highly popular features.

Eric Rich, the Post’s editor who oversees homepages, explained to me: “If we see readers passing an important story by, for example, we might try to explain its importance more in the headline or blurb. Or we might try to convey its human dimensions more starkly.”

But sometimes, no matter how enthusiastically we present the news, the audience is just not interested.

Here is the Big Media Secret: We will generally do what you tell us to do. You, the reader, viewer, Tweeter, Facebooker currently hold more power over what is covered than at any time in history. There are no classified ads to pad salaries anymore. We survive by giving you what makes you click, subscribe and share us. This is, in some ways, a blessing. We’re responsible to what you want, and when we make an impact, we know it. But in some ways, it’s a curse. We run the risk of becoming a clearinghouse of our worst instincts, and yours.

If you show me you care about Nigeria, I’ll fly to Lagos in a heartbeat. But please don’t tell me I don’t care, just because others on your Facebook feed didn’t loop you in. Caring is what we as journalists spend our entire careers doing.

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