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Are some tragedies more important?

Published: 
Friday, November 24, 2017

This past week in international news, video footage emerged showing an auction of young men being sold into slavery for as little as US$400. The footage, released by CNN, was taken using a hidden camera by a reporter determined to investigate the rumours that Libyan migrants were being sold as farm workers.

While most of us are not unfamiliar with reports of human trafficking, it was the first time we were given a glimpse into the slave market where we could witness human lives reduced to commodities to be cheaply priced and dispensed. It shocked viewers and sparked outrage, but the pages of international news soon turned to other matters and we as viewers collectively moved on to newer and hotter topics.

When tragedies occur, social media responds with a range of reactions. Many people express empathy by posting sentimental statuses showing their concern for others and this seems to have a snowball effect as the more we post, the more our peers respond similarly. “Thoughts and prayers” has become the go-to expression for letting others know that we are aware, and we care.

Then there are those who disparage others for only caring about some tragedies but not others. They one-up everyone by claiming to be more conscious of the less mainstream tragedies (often occurring in less developed nations), and draw light to the fact that these go unnoticed and do not garner similar levels of empathy from the same people who claim to care about others. (It’s worth noting that none of these reactions do much, if anything at all, to improve the situation, and only provide avenues for us to manage our emotions and participate in a complex discussion in simplified terms.)

While the latter response can come across as self-righteous, it raises a valid observation that some tragedies spark high levels of outrage and others do not, even when they claim more victims. In fact, they are not given the same level of media coverage to begin with.

So who decides which incidents are more deserving of media coverage than others? The truth may be that the media are less concerned with how tragic an incident is and how many lives are affected, but rather with presenting whatever topics emotionally affect its viewers the most.

These are usually those tragedies which are unusual and appear most relevant to us, or those which affect people we perceive to be similar to us. For example, the Boston Bombing of 2013 resulted in the deaths of three people (though hundreds were injured), but it was an unexpected freak event, which incited fear as it could not be predicted. Unpredictability rattles our sense of security, and when fear grabs our attention we tune in.

This leads to more advertising revenue for media networks and outlets. Each time we use our phones or computers, a war for our attention ensues. Apps, news feeds and notifications compete for our clicks on each screen, all attempting to capitalise on our attention to gain advertising and subscription revenue.

If media outlets require fear to capture its audience, it makes sense that we would be shown tragedies that appear to hit home, and that instead of emphasising the tragedies that have caused the greatest amount of damage to the world, we are shown the tragedies that incite the most fear and pique the most interest. Fear is inspired when we can imagine that a tragedy might happen to people like us, people who speak our language, people who dress the way we do, who live in developed countries shaped by western culture. When tragedy becomes a possibility, we think “if it can happen to them, it can happen to us”.

Jonathan St Louis-Nahous is president, Guild of Students, UWI, St Augustine

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