After Tragedy Strikes, Don't Blame the Media for Our Indifference

It seems to be a story on repeat these days. Not just the terrorist attacks, but also our responses to them.

When the attacks in Paris happened on November 13 last year, there were cries of: "Why are people only talking about Paris? Why not Baghdad and Beirut, both of which were also bombed?" Again with Brussels: "But Istanbul was bombed just a few days before—why did no one care then? Why was it not in the news?"

No one cares? Not in the news?

Let's take a look at that.

The news covered those bombings—extensively, as this article from Vox clearly outlines.

That Cote d’Ivoire beach terrorist attack on March 13 this year? The CBC published this and The Washington Post wrote this. Al Jazeera published this story, including a first-hand account video.

That car bombing in Ankara, also on March 13? It was covered by the media here, here, and here. And then that Istanbul bombing on March 19? Yep, it was covered here and here, and here too, among others.

So we can't blame the media for not telling us when we just weren't listening.

Stop suggesting that the media is responsible for our lack of awareness, to the point where they'd have to physically strap us to a seat and physically force us to watch or read a news story. It's our responsibility to read the news. And besides that, it's our responsibility to expand beyond Western media and read news from media outlets located in the Global South, like Al Jazeera out of Qatar.

To say something wasn't in the news a lie. We just didn't read it; it was out there. And we are lucky enough to have access to media outlets from all over the world, at an instant, at our fingertips. The blame is on us.

As for not caring, well, we can't grab someone by the shoulders and shake them and scream, "Why don't you care? Why do you only care about cities you’re familiar with? Why don't you care about these other places?" That doesn't make people care more. You can't shame people into caring more.

It may be true that Western media focuses more on Western tragedies. It may be true that Facebook comes alive with concern and flags and cartoons and remembrance after an attack on a Western city. But I believe that to say this is because we care more about Western lives is a contradiction to what we want: peace, solidarity, empathy.

It's human nature to care about things that we're familiar with. Let’s acknowledge and accept this so that we can work with it to make things better.

What can we do about this? Build familiarity with other places. A simple sounding answer, but no small task.

Paris has consistently been one of the most visited cities in the world, which means that Paris has more tourist connections than most other places. That is important.

I know that when I travel somewhere, I build a relationship with that place. My ears perk up when I hear it mentioned in the news or when it's talked about in conversation. These places become part of what's important to me. I imagine if that happens to me, maybe it also happens to other people. Maybe when cities they’ve travelled to come up in the news, other people’s ears perk up too.

And if so many people are visiting one particular city, like Paris, maybe someone I know is there when tragedy strikes. The Brussels airport is one that many people have flown through. There's a potentially personal connection to the tragic event.

Street scenes from Istanbul in 2013

Street scenes from Istanbul in 2013

When the tragedy in Istanbul happened, I was connected to it. I had walked that very street, Istiklal Avenue. I can picture the colourful shop signs it in my head, feel the uneven road under my feet, hear music flowing from the stores, smell the simit (a circular Turkish bread) sold by street vendors. I'm thankful that I got a chance to visit that beautiful city, and I could feel it in my heart when it was hurt. I wondered if my friends were okay, and my Turkish coworker's friends and family were okay. Hell, I wondered if the shopkeepers and strangers I never met were okay.

So to me it makes sense that during the Paris and Brussels attacks occurred, the world noticed and the world reacted in the way that it did. Many people felt connected to these places. They cared.

If someone has built up familiarity with a place through travel or news before a tragedy occurs, they're going to care more if or when something happens to that place. We need to build connections around the world so that those kinds of memories and feelings I felt for Istanbul aren't just for the "popular" cities.

It's a disservice to everyone when tragedy strikes and people seem to want to tear others down for expressing sadness.

I can't pretend that I haven't made these righteous cries myself.

A few years after 9/11, on one of its anniversaries, I made a similar remark about how the same number of people who died in NYC that day die every day of AIDS-related health problems. I said that while 9/11 was tragic, we also need to consider that a tragedy of this magnitude is happening every day.

This tragedy comparison is happening today, and it's not helping anyone.

Instead of tearing people down, we need to build connections between us. We can do this by sharing news stories about other places as they happen—not just when tragedy hits a global city, like Brussels, the capital of the EU, and we feel the need to rant about "other people's" lack of compassion for peripheral cities and countries. We can help each other learn more about other places so that they're on our radar. We can travel and get to know places personally that we otherwise wouldn't be familiar with. We can diversify our news sources so that places outside of our neighbourhood feel less foreign.

This is our responsibility, not the responsibility of the media, which is already telling us the stories. We need to be the other half of the equation and listen.