Simon Howell
Simon Howell

Boston, media bias and problem with quantifying life and death

Invariably when a tragedy such as the Boston bombing occurs in the US, UK or any other “western” nation, the bloodshed is compared, quantitatively, with the violence in Iraq, Syria, or any other nation that is not in the “west”. Within minutes of the detonation of the bombs in Boston, my Facebook feed was producing poorly crafted posters questioning why we are all so upset about the death of three people when 42 died in Iran that day. While I can understand the sentiments behind the posters, and the resulting outrage, I have often thought that these comparisons only serve to undermine the very sentiments they are trying to express.

I don’t think it much of an assumption to state that the South African media has a tendency to be informed by “western” news stories and events. One only has to look at the number of stories that originate from the AFP and American media houses to understand that our news is more often than not a regurgitation of stories originally published elsewhere. Our press is also largely informed by “western” media practices, economics, and ideas. The media we consume is then tainted by the perspectives adopted by international media houses whose loyalties invariably lie with the US, UK, and France. This much, I believe, is common knowledge and is naturally cause for concern. One only had to compare the media coverage of the Boston bombs with the 7.8 magnitude earthquake in Iran, which occurred on the same day, to understand just how biased media coverage of two world events can really be.

Using the number of deaths in each event as a means of both quantifying and condemning this media bias is however problematic. This is because these comparisons draw our attention away from the tragedy of the individual deaths themselves. Each death, just like each life, is unique and to simply quantify these deaths in comparisons that highlight media bias does a disservice to those deaths. I completely agree that 42 deaths in Iraq should receive the same, if not more, media coverage than three deaths in Boston. But to compare these deaths and events is what I find problematic. Both events are tragic. Both events are highly disruptive to the communities within which they occurred and to the families of those who have been killed. They should both be respected in their singularity and not be harnessed as a mere tool that people can use to express their anger at media bias, or their need to articulate the latest cover-up or conspiracy theory. These comparisons are meant to provoke a reaction, as indeed they do, but at the same time we are forced to lose sight of the individuality of each death, whether in Iraq or Boston.

Of course, some may argue that we would appreciate these deaths even more if we received fair media coverage of the events. If we had seen as many pictures and video footage of the bombings in Iraq as we did of the bombing in Boston we would be as or even more outraged. Again I completely agree. But critiques of media coverage should be focused on the coverage itself and the reasons why we receive “western” style news broadcasts with “western” interests at heart. We should be focussing on the reasons why “western” news sells more, and why network operators do not provide us with a balanced coverage of world events. These, in my mind, are the fault lines that we need to address, and they need to be addressed at the level at which they occur. Using comparisons of people’s deaths as a tool by which to express this bias undermines the individuality of each death, and the momentous event that it is for those close to the individual. A quantitative comparison of these deaths, in other words, refocuses our attention on media bias when our real concern should be focussed on the people that have lost their lives.

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