ELHAM NUMAN/THE VARSITY

As June turned to July this year, in the span of six days, three capital cities – Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad – were targeted by deadly terrorist attacks. The attacks were among the worst to hit the countries. Over 200 people died in Baghdad alone, making it the deadliest attack in that city since 2003.

Yet, despite their magnitude, these attacks have received the bare minimum in terms of coverage from major news sources, social media attention, and public vigils. The few Facebook posts I saw about the attacks linked to a handful of New York Times or BBC articles, often captioned with a statement expressing disbelief that the story hadn’t received more media attention. Perhaps even more lacking than mainstream media coverage of the attacks was the social media response. There were no Facebook flag filters or trending hashtags for Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq.

It is clear where in the world the media’s gaze tends to fall, and this is by no means a new phenomenon. There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.

There have been countless instances of ‘Western’ countries receiving weeks of media coverage following terrorist attacks, while countries in the Middle East, Asia, and Africa barely get a day’s worth of mourning.

Paris, for example, received an outpouring of support from the media and the international community after the November 2015 ‘Charlie Hebdo’ attacks. Well-publicized public vigils were held in dozens of cities internationally, and websites such as Skype allowed users to make free calls to France to connect to their loved ones following the attacks. Even Saturday Night Live started its show with a somber opening, something that has only ever been done after the 9/11 and Sandy Hook attacks, both of which took place in the United States. Landmarks around the world were lit up in the colours of the French flag when, only days earlier, they had remained dark while Beirut was mourning the worst terrorist attack to hit the city since the end of the Lebanese Civil War.

Similarly, after the Brussels bombings in 2016, London’s National Gallery, the One World Trade Center, and the Toronto sign were all lit with the colours of the Belgian flag. Yet more recently, not one of these landmarks lit up in honour of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq.

The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels.

In fact, the extensive media attention given to terrorist attacks in cities like Paris and Brussels have prompted the creation of Wikipedia pages dedicated solely to reactions to the bombings in both cities. While it is too early to tell whether Istanbul, Dhaka, and Baghdad will have similarly detailed pages, the small section dedicated to “Reactions” on the general 2015 Beirut Bombings Wikipedia page tells a different story.

Though this level of neglect for non-‘Western’ tragedies is troubling, it is also not something we can chalk up to being the responsibility of politicians or the media alone. The public have had an undeniable hand in the disproportionate attention given to certain tragedies over others through social media channels. Hashtags expressing worldwide support for victims do not gain “trending” status because of media conglomerates, but rather because of the use of the hashtag by everyday Twitter users. Public demand for official Facebook filters in support of Turkey, Bangladesh, or Iraq would undoubtedly yield results.

But a perceived lack of public interest in either of the above tragedies, reflected in a real absence of social media attention, has given mainstream media the fuel they need to justify their minimal coverage of these tragedies. Regardless of whether or not one believes social media has any real credence, it cannot be denied that Twitter and Facebook can be used to gauge interest. As the reaction to recent tragedies – or the lack thereof – has shown, our interests are very specific, and our sympathies, selective.

So what is it about France and Belgium that makes them easier to empathize with, compared to countries like Turkey, Bangladesh, and Iraq? Two things stand out: both countries are described as ‘Western’ in terms of culture, and their inhabitants are mostly white. When attacks in predominantly white Western cities get more media attention and support from the international community than attacks elsewhere – in essence, when the world is so brazen about valuing of certain lives over others – readers are presented with two harmful narratives.

The first of these narratives involves the normalization of terrorist attacks in “non-Western” cities. When criticism of disproportionate media attention arises, it is not uncommon to hear it dismissed by respondents claiming that “it happens all the time there.” These comments are not only unrelated to the issue at hand, as patterned terrorist attacks in certain areas provide all the more reason for the issue to get more media attention; they also spawn the idea that the death of people living in cities that regularly experience violence is not worth the time of readers and viewers.

But, as the targeted audience of ‘Western’ media, we know that this is not necessarily true. Mass shootings are on the rise in the United States, and we hear about them both frequently and extensively in the form of cover page stories, opinion pieces, and even the life stories of victims. While it is true that gun violence is pertinent to us as North American media consumers, terrorist attacks are by no means irrelevant to ‘Western’ media, given the often fear-mongering rhetoric employed by various governments and the “War on Terror.” Why is the same level of attention not paid to terrorist attacks elsewhere in the world?

This ties into the second narrative presented by the media, which paints terrorist attacks as tragedies that should only be mourned if those affected are white, or more specifically, non-Muslim. By releasing feature articles and profiles on white victims of violence while remaining silent about a predominantly Muslim city that has been attacked – and during Ramadan, no less – the media humanizes white victims, while simultaneously dehumanizing Muslim victims.

By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights.

The perception that Muslim victims don’t make good news stories also contributes to the minimal coverage given to terrorist attacks in Muslim cities, and it perpetuates the idea that Muslim victims of terrorist attacks are irrelevant to Western media. Furthermore, a study published in the American Sociological Review has found that negative portrayals of Muslims in the media get more attention than positive ones, a finding that sheds light on the potential purposes behind the media’s manipulation of Muslim lives and suffering.

Much of this also comes as a result of the ‘Muslims killing non-Muslims’ rhetoric that has risen in the wake of the recent wave of terrorism. By painting Muslims as the enemy, this rhetoric allows governments to garner public support for foreign policy decisions that spit in the face of human rights. It takes the focus away from the violence faced by people hailing from countries all over the world and places it instead on religion by using Islamophobia to push a political agenda.

Any publicity gained by terrorist attacks in Muslim cities therefore dismantles this “Muslims killing non-Muslims” narrative, and threatens the culture of fear that allows governments to get away with drone attacks and the like. And whether knowingly or unknowingly, the media has latched onto this Islamophobic rhetoric.

As consumers of this media, we have had a hand in this demonization and dehumanization of Muslims. While the perceived interest of readers does not write the headlines, it shapes them. Our likes, shares, and use of hashtags reflect what we consider to be newsworthy, and when we ignore the few stories that are published by mainstream media about these attacks, we only prove these harmful narratives to be true. The media wields the power to disperse these narratives on a wide scale, but it is people like us who perpetuate them in smaller and more pervasive ways.

The fact remains that the issue at hand is much bigger than a seemingly trivial Facebook flag filter — but meaningful discourse starts with questioning why Paris got one, but Beirut did not. We must therefore start paying attention to the stories we don’t hear about, and learn to challenge what mainstream media presents us with. But more importantly, we need to start questioning our own sympathies, and why our hearts break for one city, and not for another.

Saambavi Mano is a third-year student at Victoria College studying Peace, Conflict, and Justice studies.

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