Spotlight: The Media’s ‘Hierarchy Of Victims’ | WBEZ
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Worldview Podcast

Spotlight: The Media’s 'Hierarchy Of Victims'

Only 32 percent of Americans say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the media, according to a 2016 Gallup poll — the lowest rate in 20 years. 

In a recent article, Current Affairs editor Nathan Robinson argues that one of the most easily provable forms of media bias is how journalists weigh the importance of different people’s lives. 

“Some people’s deaths are news, some people’s aren’t, and the question of who matters reflects nothing more than the purest kind of subconscious prejudice,” Robinson writes.

Robinson spoke with Worldview host Jerome McDonnell to discuss the media’s “hierarchy of victims” and what can be done about it. 

McDonnell: What does it look like when the media values people’s lives differently in different places?

Robinson: There was a study ten years ago that didn’t receive a lot of coverage. They looked at 700,000 news stories in all of the major news networks, and what they tried to understand was how many deaths would it take in a particular place to generate the same amount of coverage. They were able to produce a ratio of how many people would have to die in order for something to be considered a big story. The numbers were very startling. One death in a disaster in Europe gets the equivalent amount of coverage 45 deaths in Africa or Asia from the from the same kind of disaster.

When you break it down by type of natural disaster you see a bias towards the more sensational too. It only takes one death in a volcano to generate the same amount of coverage that it would 1,695 deaths from an epidemic, 2,395 deaths from a drought, or 38,920 deaths from a food shortage would.

McDonnell: When tragedies happen in, say, Paris, often-times the media qualifies them as “unusual” and therefore newsworthy.

Robinson: That’s right. But paying disproportionate attention to unusual things causes us to overestimate the amount of times that unusual things happen. We elevate the risk of terrorism in our mind because it's an unusual thing that gets heavily covered. We don't appreciate other risks nearly as much because they aren't as sensational and they don't get covered precisely because they aren't as unusual. ... That's precisely the problem that we're talking about: The way that this structures your worldview in order to fixate on things outside the usual boundaries of what is likely to occur.

It's understandable why we fixate on these kinds of events, but it’s important to recognize that we're following a kind of tabloid logic in our minds. If we think that we are becoming more informed this way, we're not. It’s an understandable temptation to pay attention to sensational things because sensational things are gripping. But we have to question why we pay attention to certain things over others and what the kind of logic is driving our interest subconsciously.

McDonnell: So what about in places where tragedies like this are actually frequent?

Robinson: It’s true that these kinds of incidents occur in certain places rather than others. That ends up making them less “newsworthy” if “newsworthiness” were defined just as things out of the ordinary. Violence is more of a feature of everyday life in Baghdad, but if you accept that kind of logic, what you end up doing is misappreciating whose deaths are occurring in larger numbers, and where the bulk of suffering is. I come from a humanist and universalist perspective. I think that all people are equal and their pain deserves equal weight in the calculus of what matters in the world.

McDonnell: What do we do about it?

Robinson: There's no perfect world of reportage because to be human is to be biased and have different values and weight things differently. So you can't be perfect, but what you can be is better. The first thing I'd like to see is the media stop defending this kind of differential hierarchy. When I talk to journalists about this, they get very uncomfortable. But ultimately they see it as defensible on that newsworthiness principle. What I think I'd like to start with is a wider recognition of the fact that newsworthiness isn't a very good defense of things because it just suggests pandering to public prejudices. I think ultimately it can be made better and one of the ways that it can be made better is through trying to remove, as much as possible, the profit motive from news gathering, because I think that is very destructive. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. It was produced and edited by Julian Hayda. Click the 'play' button to listen to the entire interview.

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