'Worthy' & 'Unworthy' Victims in the Digital Age: Visualizing Media Coverage in 2015

When ISIS attacked Paris this past November, killing over 100 people, it felt like the world was collectively grieving. The social media sphere filled with #PrayForParis, major world landmarks lit up with the French flag colours, and I watched as my newsfeed filled itself with blue-white-and-red profile pictures, with Facebook facilitating the option for displaying solidarity for Parisian victims. 

The previous day, ISIS had also attacked a urban district in Beirut, killing over 40. But there was no option for changing your profile picture to the colours of the Lebanese flag, no flooding of grievances on my social media. It didn’t take long for people to notice the “empathy gap” between the victims of Paris and Beirut.  Lebanese doctor and blogger Elie Fares wrote about the world's apparent lack of empathy for Arab lives: "When my people died, they did not send the world in mourning. Their death was but an irrelevant fleck along the international news cycle, something that happens in those parts of the world."

A few articles, such as this one by Emma Kelly and  this one by Max Fisher in Vox, argued that this discrepancy in sympathy stemmed not from disproportionate media coverage, but from the readers themselves: after all, major media outlets like The Washington Post and the New York Times did publish articles about Beirut the day of the attack. However, such an argument doesn't consider the big picture discrepancy. Aside from the initial coverage the day of the attack, there was little follow up coverage from major new publications on Beirut, especially compared to the coverage of the Paris attacks.  This is demonstrated in our headline analysis of Google News search results, in the month following the attacks*:   

Kelly and Fisher's claims that readers simply feel more empathy for Parisian victims simply because, independent of any media influence, is bizarre.  The fact that the opinions of readers are shaped by the content they consume is the most basic principle of how propaganda operates.  The Washington Post had over over 100 times more headlines covering the Paris attacks than the Beirut attacks.  If that's not the media selectively attending to some tragedies over others, then I don't know what is.   This is not to say that the pain and suffering of the Parisian people is not real, and is not worth grieving for - we simply want to highlight that the media's selective attention can be a powerful influence on how people think about global issues.

The idea that some human lives are more worthy to the media than others is not a new one. 

The idea that some human lives are more worthy to the media than others is not a new one. In their 1988 book about propaganda and the mass media, Manufacturing Consent, Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky argue that the interests of dominant, wealthy groups with political and economic power both shape and control what topics are covered, which stories are given special emphasis, and how issues are framed. One pointed result of such forces is the strikingly differential treatment between “worthy” and “unworthy” victims in the mainstream media.

The book highlights that this differential treatment rests not only in the quantity of coverage, but also reflected in the depth and quality of coverage: stories about worthy victims make a more explicit effort to humanize victims, and consequently garner more empathy from the readership than stories about “unworthy” victims.  This is all too reminiscent of popular media coverage on many events from this past year. From the disparity in coverage between the Paris and Beirut attacks last month, to the disproportionate amount of attention devoted to Caitlin Jenner over the lives of murdered trans women, dichotomies in media-worthiness are bound by a number of factors.  While Herman and Chomsky primarily argue that it is victims of enemy states who are deemed worthy of media attention (atrocities committed or funded by the USA are given minimal, if any, coverage), these disparities also seem to stem from the race, geopolitical, and class status of victims.

To kick off the new year, we decided to conduct a series of quantitative comparisons of “worthy” and “unworthy” victim coverage over the course of 2015 by three major North American news publications: The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Globe and Mail. To do so, we looked for keywords in the headlines of (online versions of) these publications, and compared the number of stories covering worthy versus unworthy victims. We tried to limit our comparisons to stories that occurred in a roughly similar time period, and when appropriate, bounded the analysis to the same time window (and if events did not occur concurrently, to the same length of time window).  

Over the next month, we will be releasing a new comparison of mainstream media coverage on a range of issues each week. What we found was striking, but not surprising: in the eyes of the media, some lives simply matter more than others.

What are your thoughts on relevancy, propaganda and the empathy gap? Are there any comparisons that you would like to see covered? Let us know in the comments! 

*Our headline analysis of the Paris and Beirut attacks searched for any articles that contained a mention of the city name in conjunction with the words "attack", "bombing", or "ISIS" in the same headline. 

This was written by Lorraine Chuen, and is Part 1 of a series on visualizing media coverage in the digital age.