Prioritising Life: Media Bias in Times of Crisis

With news being broadcast 24 hours a day, and the ability to access the news from any location via mobile phones, we have the capacity to be better informed than we have ever been. However, there is a gross bias in the media which inhibits this ability. While some humanitarian disasters – both human and natural – are widely reported and receive media coverage and support, others receive woefully little coverage.

Media coverage has the capacity to have a positive impact on the aftermath of a humanitarian crisis. It can lead to increased aid from the public in the shape of donations and from governments around the world. Furthermore, it can force the hand of policy makers to pledge humanitarian aid, and can restrain actors who would make the situation worse by making them aware that the whole world is watching, and is capable of casting them in an extremely negative light. All of these things can aid in the aftermath of crises, and so for there to be a bias in what gets reported there must be a prioritising of which people are the worthiest. This prioritising would appear to put the right to life of some above the right to life of others. This is, quite simply, not morally permissible.

An example of this media bias can be found in the Charlie Hebdo attacks which took place on the 7th of January 2015. While this attack was reported with outrage around the world, the mass killings that occurred on the 3rd of January 2015 in Nigeria were largely ignored. The reports of this attack, carried out by Boko Haram, were so few and far between that there is not even any clear consensus on how many were killed, with estimates ranging from 150 to 2,000 men, women, and children.

One of many demonstrations to show support for France after the Charlie Hebdo attacks.

Furthermore, many stories that have come out of Africa have focused on the Ebola outbreak. While this was a major crisis, it also served to erase conflicts such as the one in the Central African Republic, which led to the deaths of 5,000 people in less than a year. John Ging, the director of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, has stated “the elements are there, the seeds are there, for a genocide.” For this barbarity to be allowed to go unreported was to suggest that this near genocide was permissible. Moreover, there has been an implication that the sole reason that the Ebola outbreak attracted so much media attention was due to the possibility that it may spread to Western countries. This not only highlights the bias in media, but shows the double standards when it comes to protecting the right to life.

The fact that these atrocities are not reported has led to Virgil Hawkins calling them “stealth conflicts.” A stealth conflict is a conflict which has never received proper media coverage, and so attention has never been drawn to it. These injustices and humanitarian crises are prime examples of media bias, the West’s blinkered perspective, and the double standards that occur when it comes to protecting the right to life.

Perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of media bias is that a humanitarian crisis is more likely to be reported if it is ‘dramatic.’ This means that a disaster is more likely to be reported in the news if it involves explosions of the sort that we would see in a Hollywood blockbuster. Rather ominously, this indicates that the destruction of people’s lives is something for the entertainment of the West. Moreover, often humanitarian crises are overlooked for being ‘boring’ or ‘repetitive.’ This is a disturbing thought in itself. The idea that an entire population starving to death may not be reported simply because it is not sensational enough or unique enough is truly horrific. It implies that we only care about loss of life when it is an interesting situation, or when it is so out of the ordinary as to be seen as abhorrent enough to be publicised.

In addition to this sensationalism of death, some have said that the public needs to have some connection to the people involved in these atrocities in order for them to care. This is an idea which has been posited by Nick Harvey, who states that Western media cares more about conflicts when they are closer to home. It is emphasised that humanitarian crises which happen in Africa are ‘too far away,’ happening to people who are “too different, living in countries that are simply not important enough.” This is a sentiment which is echoed by many. The implication is that the higher the standing of the people that are affected, and the closer to the West they are, the more coverage they will receive. This can be evidenced in the aforementioned Charlie Hebdo attacks and the Boko Haram attacks in Baga, Nigeria. While each were equally deserving of media attention, one went almost completely unnoticed and the other caused outrage. We can therefore surmise that there is an element of prioritisation of life within media coverage. This is completely unacceptable and suggests that the right to life is not properly protected.

We can build on this idea by bringing race into the debate. Even when reporting on humanitarian crises in far flung countries, the focus is often on Western characters such as American or British people who have become caught up in the conflicts and disasters. This has been remarked upon by the Human Rights Watch’s Emergency Director, Peter Bouckaert. The idea that simply by having an American or a British person involved transforms a previously unimportant humanitarian crisis into a newsworthy occurrence is incredibly ominous.

This debate over prioritising lives was brought to a head upon the implementation of the Facebook safety feature. While the feature was not turned on for countless attacks in Africa or the Middle East, it was turned on for attacks in Paris and other subsequent attacks in European countries. Up until the 13th of November 2015, the safety feature had only ever been utilised for natural disasters. Many have questioned why the feature was not activated for the bombings in Beirut which had happened the day before the attacks in Paris. Mark Zuckerburg replied that Facebook “plan to activate Safety Check for more human disasters going forward.” However, the majority of events which have caused the safety feature to be switched on have occurred in Europe. With around 146,637,000 Facebook users in Africa, this is a shocking bias. This issue is further debated with regards to profile picture filters which are used to show solidarity with those who have been affected. While there have been filters for Western countries, there have been very few for any other countries which have been affected by crises. This is yet another example of the media prioritising Western lives over the lives of other nationalities. This is simply unacceptable.

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