By Benjamin Brewer
14th October 2017. 300 dead. One of the most ‘lethal terrorist acts anywhere in the world for many years’. Surely everyone would have heard about one of the most devastating terrorist attacks in recent memory? Yet it seems this was not the case following a muted response from the global community. This terrorist attack didn’t occur on the streets of Westminster, or in the shadow of the Stade de France, or under the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip. It didn’t occur in the ‘West’ or the ‘Global North’ at all. Instead it occurred in Mogadishu, Somalia.
For most, Somalia has become synonymous with the violence of civil wars which have ravaged the country since 1991, or the failed intervention of a US-UN coalition during the 1990s, all which was chronicled by Hollywood in the 2001 film, Black Hawk Down. Somalia is not alone in facing an uphill battle against the rising tide of stereotypes associated with both religion, in particular Islam, and political stability.
As a result, this blog hopes to illustrate a few examples of Western media reporting bias, why this is the case, focusing on the tendency of mainstream media narratives to reflect those propagated by state institutions. It in no way suggests that one terrorist incident is worse than another, nor downplays the destruction caused by terrorism in any part of the world, but rather calls for a more balanced and nuanced view when it comes to global reporting practices.
The criticisms related to the media’s reporting of terrorism have been around for years. It was found that during November 2015, the Paris attacks garnered over 21,000 article mentions, whereas in the cases of the terrorist incidents that took place in the same month in Baghdad and Beirut, they garnered 392 and 1,292 references respectively. Again, this ‘understatement of true terrorist activity worldwide’ (Drakos and Gofas, 2006: 734) can be seen with regards to the attack in Mogadishu. For example, it was observed that the Guardian newspaper was the only UK paper to put the story on its front page. It can be argued that these terrorist incidents result in a small ripple in the vast political ocean. The question is – why?
The geopolitical relationship between state and media narratives
One reason is the ‘trickledown effect’ political discourses can have on media reporting. For example, President Obama made a personal address in relation to the Paris attacks on the 13th November 2015, describing them as “heart-breaking”, and suggesting that “France is our oldest ally”. In contrast, after the terrorist incident in Beirut, the National Security Council released a statement which used language such as ‘condemns’ and ‘condolences’ to respond to the devastation that had been seen following the attack.
This example suggests that statist language drives, and formulates, media outlets news processes, and helps disseminate strategic narratives both domestically and internationally (Roselle et al, 2014: 78). Following 9/11, there was significant overlap between the way that terrorism was framed by government officials, and the reporting of such discussions by popular media (Norris et al, 2003: 4). Through the connective fibers that link media and political mechanisms, state messages are provided legitimacy and support when they are circulated in the public domain (Roselle et al, 2014: 79). In the modern age, the general public have become heavily reliant upon the mass media to help form their own views, ideas and global identity (Gitlin, 1980: 1).
Now a large proportion of people might argue “but surely we are always going to focus more on domestic events and those attacks that occur closer to home?”. This is very true. It has been suggested that the feeling of familiarity and certain expectations associated with a particular state, influence our perception of two similar events. The ‘empathy gap’, therefore, has been conditioned by the states and environments we grow up in and inhabit.
Sociologists have argued that human interactions are based on our association to a ‘distinct society and culture’ (Assmann and Czaplicka, 1995: 125), which is one reason why we see an outpouring of emotion for terrorist incidents that occur in the Global North. This is exacerbated by the strategic narratives that are peddled by popular media outlets, and as a result, societies develop a colonial indifference to attacks in the Global South. In a multicultural world, we must be careful of isolating populations, in a similar fashion to those during the age of colonialism (Gair, 2017: 162). The language used by current U.S. President, Donald Trump, has only helped to exclude populations, even without the support of popular media, and this message has resonated with portions of American society. Therefore, the risk is that exclusionary attitudes are only compounded by the selection bias that media outlets exhibit.
This examination has uncovered a concerning pattern and attitude regarding media reporting in relation to terrorist incidents in the global south. The issue of under-reporting is something that exists and only exacerbates divides between populations. Division, persecution and exclusion are concepts that continue to be prevalent within our global society, and can be seen as legacies of a colonial era. The interrelated nature of government and media relations, has helped maintain social narratives of identity and association, that ultimately can lead to exclusionary attitudes – such as ‘Othering’. With the under-reporting of terrorism, we find another example of this which will construct walls in, and between, societies that will only become increasingly harder to break down. We must try and resist attempts to construct a Western hegemonic pedestal that places the devastation of one act of terrorism over another.
Assmann, J. and Czaplicka, J. 1995. ‘Collective Memory and Cultural Identity’. Duke University Press, New German Critique, 65:1, pp.125-133. [Online] Available at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/488538.pdf?refreqid=excelsior:6b07b4b788655f5e5cdcf626341d5179. Accessed 22/1/2018.
Drakos, K. and Gofas, A. 2006. ‘The Devil You Know but Are Afraid to Face: Underreporting Bias and its Distorting Effects on the Study of Terrorism’. Sage Publications, Journal of Conflict Resolution, pp.714-734. Available at: https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/7561/a8228e71733ad093c9c7fd5283c4de250160.pdf. Accessed 10/12/2017.
Gair, S. 2017. ‘Pondering the Color of Empathy: Social Work Student’s Reasoning on Activism, Empathy and Racism’. Oxford University Press on behalf of the British Association of Social Workers, British Journal of Social Work, 47:1, pp.162-180. [Online].
Gitlin, T. 2003. ‘The Whole World is Watching: Mass Media in the Making and Unmaking of the New Left’. Berkley: University of California Press, pp.1-21.
Norris et al, 2004. ‘Framing Terrorism’. Routledge Ltd. pp.1-24. [Online] Available at: https://www-dawsonera-com.ezproxy01.rhul.ac.uk/abstract/9780203484845. Accessed 22/1/2018
Roselle et al, 2014. ‘Strategic narrative: A new means to understand soft power’. SAGE Publications, Media, War and Conflict, 7:1, pp.70-84. [Online] Available at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/1750635213516696. Accessed 12/1/2018.
Ben is currently studying for an MSc in Geopolitics and Security, having previously graduated from Royal Holloway with a Politics degree. He is fascinated by the debates surrounding securitisation, the role the media plays in shaping public opinion, and the future development of post-colonial states. Follow Ben on Twitter: Follow @BenBrewer7