media, oddly enough, Political Theory, US Politics, USA


Andrew Northrup is concerned with the distorted reality that mass media is constructing in our heads, specifcally by the notion that the western public is more and more appalled even by small numbers of wartime casualties, citing an article by Greg Easterbrook who seems to hold this opinion –

“[a]s we weep for the Iraqi dead – whoever slew them, they did not deserve their fates–we should reflect that the recent trend both of general war, as in Iraq, and of ‘armed conflict,’ as in other places, is for fewer people to die, while the threshold of what constitutes an atrocity is steadily lowered. Both are good signs for the human prospect.”

Northrup, on the other hand holds that

“… media coverage, and world opinion, has basically nothing to do with actual magnitudes, and basically everything to do with scoring political points. … Is a single Palestinian or Israeli death global news because a precious, precious life was lost, and life is the most precious, precious thing there is? Or because it lets someone say “I told you so”?”

He certainly makes a good point by citing an Economist article about another – far bloodier – war that is being waged these days without global attention – in Africa, Congo, to be precise, a forgotten country on a forgotten continent –

“… if the Economist’s figures are to be believed, the death toll of the past half-decade in Congo is about the same as the entire population of the occupied territories, or Israel, or Baghdad. Put another way, it’s 3 orders of magnitude greater than Intifada 2, probably 4 powers of ten greater than GW2 (so far…), and has received 3 or 4 orders of magnitude less press coverage than either one. The explanation for this is politics, not the greater caring and sensitivity of 21st century man.”

I agree that domestic and international political/ economic salience is clearly an important variable to explain media attention – but I think that casualty numbers do have some importance, albeit not quite in the way that Mr Easterbrook alleges.

I doubt human beings have become any more emphatic in recent years than they have been before. But low casualty numbers allow a stronger expressions of empathy than higher numbers – mostly because of psychological “bandwidth restrictions”. We might be able to grasp the suffering of a few people, but not that of millions. Factor that into the media’s programming decisions and there is an additional explanation for overproportional coverage of “small scale” atrocities.

Maybe Andrew Northrup forgot about a point once made by Joseph Stalin: while the Soviet dictator was undisputably wrong in pretty much everything he ever said or did – after all, depending on whom you ask he will be a close runner up to Hitler or even top the Austro-German monster on the list of the most evil men of the 20st century – he seems to have had a certain grasp of mass media constructed reality and human psychology when he once stated that –

“A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”