Wednesday, July 13, 2005

Which Body Count? Which Bodies Count?

So at least 52 people died in the July 10 London bombing. That's a lot of people, a lot of suffering, and it's beyond anything I can imagine in my own placid existence. But I think we're hearing about it way too much in this country.

Sure, it's a real story with important implications, and it deserves significant coverage. Just not this much.

I don't really blame the UK media for giving the story as much play as possible. The attack happened in their capital. And not only is 52 people a lot of dead people by any measure, it's equivalent to more than 50% of British troop deaths in Iraq since the war began (89 as of July 1), so the number must feel especially big.

I'm not even sure that I blame the US and the UK media for giving the London bombings way more play than they've given (or will give) today's train accident in Pakistan that killed 120. Yes, both events happened on mass transit, but readers and viewers always find death more interesting if someone deliberately caused it.

But I do blame the US media for overplaying the London bombings. Part of it, yes, is that the US media know their customers. Americans know that the British are our allies in Iraq (real allies, not the bribed absentee kind), so an attack on them does feel very much like an attack on us. But our media don't necessarily need to be reinforcing that response. And the definitely don't need to be covering it for some other bad reasons, some of the worst of which follow:
  1. Organizational Convenience. All major US media organizations already have people and infrastructure in London. The story came to them, and did so in a cost-effective way. This is the news equivalent of dating that woman in your apartment building because parking's easy.
  2. Good sound bites. They all speak English, and with so many charming accents.
  3. War on Terror. If an individual story falls under an easy umbrella that editors can put in the crawl, you can make it seem extra important (not just "52 people died" but "52 people died IN TERRORIST ATTACKS"). You can then also make the umbrella story seem that much more important by bolstering it with the individual story ("In more news in the global war on terror...").
  4. Repertorial Comfort. US reporters who do fly in to cover the story can expense account nice hotels and meals. Plus, everybody speaks English, so that's handy.
  5. Ease of Identification. It's not too hard for (white) Americans to identify with the British. Even if you dismiss the mostly unconscious racism that makes it easier for white people to identify with other white people (and, man, the UK is still pretty white), black people with black people, etc., we have a common history and a common language. Our special relationship makes their deaths special deaths. Like their lives, their deaths matter more.
"So what?" you might ask. "So we're hearing a little too much about the London bombings. At least that's a real story. At least the media aren't devoting all their attention to the hunt for some perky blonde teenager who disappeared in the Caribbean." Good point. I'm glad you made it. I guess I got started on this tirade because of a couple other news stories.

First, there's the all too familiar story of continuing deaths in Iraq. On July 10, a car bomb killed 20 Iraqis at a police recruitment center. Today, a car bomb killed 27 people (including a US soldier) in the street where US troops were handing out candy to kids. There were smaller attacks in between. That's about 52 dead right there, just since the London bombings. But we've heard it all before. We don't get excited about it. The US news media know that, and rather than find ways to make us take an interest in people dying in a war we started, they take the easy way out and give us variety, the spice of death.

And I wish it were just variety, bad as that is. But it's also a comment on the limits and blindspots of our empathy. I think most people identify with the British more than with the Iraqis, even though we're all supposedly allies now in the fight against the insurgency--again, a fight that we and the British started. Pick your own reasons why.

Second, 56 people just died in a burst of ethnic warfare between Gabra living in northern Kenya and Borana living in southern Ethiopia. Hundreds of masked Borana gunmen surrounded a Kenyan primary school and nearby houses and then just opened fire. 22 dead kids among the victims. Here's the limits of variety--this is TOO varied, too unfamiliar for the US media to care. I don't know anything about the pasture and water disputes between the Gabra and the Borana. I don't even know if the Gabra speak English or Swahili (or something else). Almost no Americans do, including our reporters. And since Kenya and Ethiopia are both relatively poor countries where we have no immediate plans to fight a war, I bet I won't learn anything more about them from the US media, unless they relay Reuters stories on page 44. But I'm willing to bet we'll know what the London bombers had for breakfast and the colors of their backpacks.


At 1:03 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

1) Most of the people killed in the car bomb attack in Iraq were kids.

2)Death count in Kenya (Turbi village) now at 76.

3) London death toll now 53.

4) All of the London bombers apparently wore "army-style" backpacks. One ususally wore blue contact lenses. One was a big cricket fan.


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