War, Death, and indifference.
If a tree falls in a forest and no one hears it, does it make a sound?
Who cares? That tree fell in an African forest, not an American one.
This past Wednesday, I covered for the Columbia Journalism Review a talk about war photojournalism at the Brooklyn Brewery. If you haven’t already, read the piece I wrote up on the event (don’t worry, I’ll wait).
One of the most interesting tidbits from the conversation between Steve Hindy and photojournalist Michael Kamber that I ended up leaving out of the piece–because it was a bit tangential to the main idea–came close to the end of the event. The answer was in response to a slightly lighthearted question asked of Steve–himself a former war correspondent–about whether reporters once had a bar to go at the end of the day and discuss the day’s events. (the question was asked by a reporter who had covered Iraq for the Times) Steve responded that the real difference between Iraq and the conflicts he had covered was the presence of Americans on the ground. The conflicts he had covered in the Middle East during the 70s and 80s ranked comparatively low on the American news agenda. As he put it, “who cares if the PLO and the Phalange get into a horrible battle in Beirut and 40 people die? There was no American there except us…in a way I was envious of the wars you guys covered because at least for a time, Americans were watching.”
This idea, that people only really care about wars when their own countrymen [and women] are fighting in them itself isn’t too surprising, and I’m not going to act like one of those slightly annoying types (see twitter) who feign outrage whenever this type of thing happens. If we take a more recent example, some pointed out after the Boston bombings that while only 3 people died in the attack that day, far more people died that day in Syria and other conflict zones around the world. As these critics pointed out, those other people died on the wrong day in terms of getting the world, and certainly the American media, to care about their deaths–the “hierarchy of death,” as a columnist for the Guardian put it.
If we look at the coverage of the recent Asiana Airlines crash in San Francisco, we’re seeing the same thing. Despite knowing the identities of two of the three deaths (a third death was announced earlier Friday evening, as of this writing), the media generally limited their coverage of the two who died, simply saying that they were both Chinese students who were coming to the US on vacation. Humanizing enough, but nothing like some of the heartfelt, textured portraits of the victims from the Boston bombings.
I mentioned earlier that I’m not necessarily outraged by this cold reality. Why? Simple. The media, with some exceptions, is a reasonably clear reflection of the audience they serve. People, for better or for worse, cope with the sheer amount of “bad things” in the world by limiting their reaction to those events to those they feel some sort of connection with, be it being from similar circumstances, places, or, in this case, nationality. It’s why, when a ship somewhere crashes, NPR talks about the Americans on the ship, and CBC talks about the Canadians on the ship. These outlets are reflecting the fact that their audience cares about those they feel the closest connection to.
Now what can be said for this? In the abstract, it’s certainly fair to talk about the arbitrariness of national borders, the accident of birth, all that stuff. In an ideal world, people would care about the deaths (and lives) of people equally, regardless of nationality, socioeconomic status, or profession. But they don’t, and probably never will. (David Wong over at Cracked gives even more analysis on this idea of rationed empathy in his “Monkeysphere” piece) To the extent that people are hard-wired to think this way, and also to the extent that it is physically impossible to give the same prominence to every news story, it’s logical that the news media–even public, not-for-profit outlets–would reflect their audience’s interests. The unavoidable problem, in the end, is that worthy stories–like that battle in Beriut some thirty years ago–often get shunted to the inside pages because of this instinct.