The Boston marathon has long been won, but runners are still struggling on towards the finish line, eager to reach their goal. A sudden explosion throws barriers out into the road and screams rise up from the crowd ; vivid yellow balloons jerk away from the blast and then float gently upwards, as if to highlight for those watching that the bomb has just ripped through children, women, and men. (If you want to have your morning thoroughly ruined you can see footage of that first explosion at the Boston marathon here, though I can’t say I recommend it.)
After logging onto facebook and seeing various reports about the bombing in my feed, I jumped straight onto twitter where hashtags like #bostonbombing and #prayforboston were exploding. This is, of course, understandable and I added my own horrified reaction to the mix. But I couldn’t help being struck by the disparity between the overwhelming coverage of this tragedy – both in mainstream and social media – and the rather paltry nod given to the far deadlier attacks in Iraq yesterday that left 50 dead and 300 wounded.
ABC’s 24-hour news channel is, of course, doing non-stop coverage of the bombing in Boston with only standard coverage for the events in Iraq, and a search for #bostonbombings on twitter brings up an endless stream of tweets. Search #iraqbombing and you get four or five tweets, coming only every few hours, and usually also containing #bostonbombing.
This is nothing new, Galtung and Ruge noted this phenomenon in the 1960s with their groundbreaking work in identifying news values. A tragedy that strikes close to home and is unexpected is more ‘newsworthy’ than one that strikes far away, or is less of a shock. The attack in Boston involved people ‘like us’ – including some Australians – being attacked very unexpectedly, so it is not surprising that Western media have a greater incentive to report it. But that word ‘incentive’ gives a clue as to why these news values are problematic.
For those of us who feel that the media in a democratic society should serve a purpose higher than the bottom line, there is a good case to be made that the bombings in Iraq are at least as newsworthy as those in Boston. The attack in Boston may turn out to be politically meaningful, but judging by recent acts of mass violence in the US it is just as likely to be the work of a ‘lone wolf’ as that of a politicised terrorist organisation. But because this attack is close to home, at least culturally speaking, it is more likely to engage an audience, and therefore more likely to generate revenue.
The attacks in Iraq, on the other hand, are undeniably politically meaningful. They come in the week leading up to Iraq’s first post-occupation election – an election in which fourteen of the candidates have already been murdered. As one of the nations that invaded Iraq in 2003, remaining involved there until 2009, Australia is deeply connected to these events. The elections that these bombings seek to disrupt are part of the very democracy we ostensibly went to war for, and they cast doubt on the value of those efforts as well as the idea that terrorist attacks in Iraq would end with the occupation. Yet these attacks – more significant in terms of loss of life and political import – are only reported as a footnote to a Western tragedy.
It is hard not to see a contradiction between this profit-driven prioritising of stories with ‘news value’ over other, often more significant, stories. The goal of a free press in a democracy is supposed to be to create informed citizens, but how can this be achieved with the media driven, in large part at least, by profit and not principle?
The news should remind us all that we are an interconnected part of the world – now more than ever – instead of giving the impression that we are apart from it. The families of those killed in Iraq mourn just as bitterly as their counterparts in Boston. Their agony, and the political situation that helped cause it, should concern us. So don’t follow the mainstream media’s lead and post about the tragedy in Boston all day. Fixating on one tragedy for days or weeks at a time won’t help end such violence, creating a less myopic world just might.