Nov 14 2015

Why do we care about Paris and not about Kabul

Every time a terrorist attack in the West captures the attention of the media, a replica arises from some ideological sectors. Whether the Boston Marathon, Charlie Hebdo or the slaughter yesterday at the Bataclan, there are always those who, after the first signs of media attention, make the same comment:

Translation: By the way, terrorist attacks like the Paris one happen almost daily in Africa or Asia, but they don’t shock us. Because it’s Africa. Or Asia

It is undoubtedly that way and it may be logical even if it may seem unfair. And yes, as explained below, it is partly because it is in Africa or Asia. But should it be otherwise? Should we pay exactly the same attention to each one of the attacks either they are in Kabul or Paris (or at least criticize when it doesn’t happen, although not even ourselves do it if only to show moral superiority)?

I will try to point out the causes of this difference in media attention. These causes are likely to be even more unfair than the detriment of the difference in media attention itself, but the world is not a fair place and that’s something I can’t hide.

During this exhibition, for brevity and convenience, Kabul city will be used as a symbolic substitute for “the most violent city in your favorite failed state.”

1. If it’s not exceptional, it’s not newsworthy

Let’s start with what is perhaps the most disturbing of the reasons and the one that will make us think that the world is not fair: the fact that such attacks are frequent in Kabul is precisely what makes them less interesting to media.

Something is newsworthy when it’s exceptional. As the above tweet says, in many cities in Africa and Asia similar attacks are almost routine. This is why they have so little media attention: if it happens every day, it’s not news. In Paris, it’s very unusual to see an attack with victims and virtually unheard of one of this magnitude. It’s exceptional, it’s in the news.

Remember the media frenzy when Boko Haram kidnapped a large group of girls. It was in Nigeria, not in Paris. But it was extraordinary, something rarely seen. Indeed, the kidnapping occurred in an attack in which 88 people died, but that is somewhat less exceptional, hardly talked about that. Boko Haram has continued making mass kidnappings, but it is not something new, no longer arouses so much media attention.

2. Geographical and cultural proximity

We (Spain) share a common border with France, Iraq is about 5000 kilometers away with nearly a dozen states between us. It is logical to feel more interest in the attacks produced closer and that we perceive as a closer threat.

However, Morocco is almost as close as France and we probably didn’t show as much interest in the attacks that happened in Casablanca as those of Paris. We have paid much more attention to the Boston bombings being no much farther than Kabul. This is because, in addition to the geographical distance, sociocultural distance also matters.

We share many more social and cultural affinities with France and the US than Morocco and Iraq (although with Morocco these differences are attenuated by geographical proximity). It is logical to feel as own what happens in countries more similar to ours. On the other hand, connecting with the previous point, USA and France, unlike Iraq, are fully developed countries with a very high level of security in which its citizens can live without fear for their freedom and security, as in our country. If this security is violated, we feel that the confidence we had in the safety of our society is also affected. An attack on the freedom of French citizens, a breach of the security of their society makes us realize that something like that could also happen here, something that we don’t feel when it happens in Kabul, and we need to know that the attack is held back as soon as possible in the most effective way to feel safe again.

3. Access to information

Even if we ignored the above two points and we wanted to give the same media attention to all the attacks, the ease of access to information is not the same.

The first problem is the geographical distance: moving correspondent to Paris is not the same as sending them to Kabul. In fact, the mainstream media have fixed correspondents in Paris due to its geographical proximity, the interest we have due to its sociocultural affinity and because it’s one of the major world powers. I don’t think the same applies Kabul. This allows almost instant connections with Paris to get live information.

The possibilities of communication with Paris are countless. They have one of the main airports in the world. Not Kabul. And if the quality of traditional communications already makes a difference between both cities greater than their geographical distance, there’s an abyss in the difference in the quality of telecommunications. These two factors affect the amount and quality of the information we could get from each in case we were equally interested, but there are more factors affecting the access to information.

In Paris, there are several layers of local governments until the government of the nation, each and every one of them guarantee and protect free access to information and the development of journalism. However, in most locations pointed by those who denounce the tort by media coverage, the government or the dictatorial regime ruling the country pursue the free press and the access to information or they are failed states that are not able to protect journalistic work and they have no control over large parts of their territory (precisely the places that should be more newsworthy) to ensure the safety of journalists who dare to carry out their work there.

Of course, no one will dare to compare access to information, guarantees and security of journalism practiced in the West with Iraq, Syria, Libya, Nigeria or Somalia.

Conclusion

Yes, we pay more attention to what happens in Paris than what happens in Kabul. Yes, there is an explanation in factors such as newsworthiness, geography, culture and access to information. No, that doesn’t make us evil or unfair. Yes, the causes that explain this show that there are many injustices in the world.

Denying that the world is not fair only makes it worse and it’s hard to imagine that there will be one day when no injustice exists in the world, but this is not an argument to not pursue the goal of making it better every time, but pointing injustice where there isn’t will only make us focus in the wrong place.

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