Published On: Tue, Apr 16th, 2013

Blood, bombs, and cameras: reporting tragedy

For the past 18 hours, my social media feeds have been overwhelmingly focused on yesterday’s terrible events in Boston.

The floodgates opened almost immediately after the first reports of explosions came through. As the story developed – as we learned about the casualties, the confirmation that this was a bombing, the valiant efforts of the first responders on the ground – so too did the public response. The initial shock turned into a mixture of sympathy for the victims and anger at the perpetrators, all underlined with a sense of solidarity. This was underlined by President Obama’s words: “On days like this there are no Republicans or Democrats – we are Americans, united in concern for our fellow citizens.”


The coverage and conversation have been all-encompassing; Margaret Thatcher and Kim Jong-un are briefly forgotten. When a bomb goes off in the USA, the rest of the world seems to stop turning. Except that it doesn’t – the Boston Marathon was not the only act of terror to claim the lives of civilians on Monday.

Over in Iraq, explosions were located in four locations across the country – Baghdad, Tuz Kurmatu, Kirkuk, and Nasariyah. The death toll for the attacks – dubbed ‘Black Monday’ – is reported to be as high as 55. The attack was executed during rush-hour and meticulously planned – over 20 explosive devices, included carbombs and roadside IEDs, were detonated. It was Iraq’s bloodiest day since – well, March 19 actually. Not even one month ago.

This story, however, did not make it onto the news agenda. I was only made aware of it by a few of my Facebook friends, who shared it as a plea for perspective amongst the outpourings of grief for Boston. To my own embarrassment, I hadn’t even heard about March 19 at all. I check the headlines every day, but I don’t always look deeper, and a large-scale terrorist attack managed to pass me by. Yet Boston (at the time of writing, the death toll stands at 3) was unavoidable.

There are many unpleasant questions that we, as westerners, could ask ourselves at this point. We could play a utilitarian and dehumanising ‘numbers game’, in which we weigh up the value of 3 lives against 55 – but does a bigger tragedy elsewhere really undermine the significance of the Boston attack? Should an attack on American soil take automatic precedence over one in Iraq? Is there not enough compassion to go around? Perhaps we should face the ugliest question of all – do we simply not care about distant cultures?

You’ll notice that I’m talking about ‘us’ here, not ‘the media’. I’ve seen a lot of people complaining about why The Media only reports on one angle, as if it were a single entity picking and choosing the news on a whimsical basis. This is not a realistic view. Most news sources (with the possible exception of funded bodies like the BBC and NPR, although they do still have a remit to provide content in the public interest) are run as commercial enterprises, and as such have to tailor their news values to the general public. They will report on stories according to their proximity to the audience instead of their overall magnitude, not because of any agenda on their part, but because they know the public will engage with them.

That, I am afraid, is the bottom line. For anyone complaining about the heavily pro-western slant of the media, the blame must be laid at the feet of our entire society. When we read news about a roadside bomb in Iraq, or an earthquake in Iran, we skim through it before heading over to the entertainment section. The thought occurs that I may not have missed the story about the March bombings at all – I may simply have glanced at it with disinterest, dismissed and forgotten it as yet another of the many casualty reports from a faraway flashpoint.

The answer to that ugliest question, unfortunately, appears to be ‘no – we do not care about distant cultures’. Not as much as we do about our own, at any rate. I’m not saying that this is OK, or morally right, or even rational. It is, quite simply, human.