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Excerpt: "As news media followed a series of horrendous attacks in Paris over the weekend, many onlookers were left wondering why news outlets didn't offer similar attention to suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon the day before, which claimed the lives of 41 people and injured hundreds more."

The aftermath of attacks in Paris, left, and Beirut, right. (photo: AP)
The aftermath of attacks in Paris, left, and Beirut, right. (photo: AP)

Experts Explain Why People Cared More About the Paris Attacks Than Beirut

By Emily Atkin and Beenish Ahmed, Think Progress

18 November 15


s news media followed a series of horrendous attacks in Paris over the weekend, many onlookers were left wondering why news outlets didn’t offer similar attention to suicide bombings in Beirut, Lebanon the day before, which claimed the lives of 41 people.

“My people’s deaths in Beirut do not matter as much as my other people’s deaths in Paris,” one Lebanese commentator wrote. “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning,” another echoed.

The seemingly disproportionate attention sparked a decent amount of outcry on social media. Most framed the discrepancy as suggesting that Western media prioritizes white lives over people of color — Paris is, after all, a European city, while Beirut is not. Others — mostly media types — blamed news consumers, who they said were driving the demand for coverage of Paris, rather than Beirut.

So whose fault is it: the media’s, or the public’s?

According to scientists, it’s both. ThinkProgress contacted two experts to weigh in on why the media and the public seemed to focus so much on the Paris attack instead of Beirut, and their answers focused mostly on Americans’ unconscious empathy toward people we perceive to be similar to us.

“It’s kind of a fascinating and frustrating phenomenon, the extreme outpouring of empathy toward France, and the almost complete lack of empathy towards Beirut,” said Emile Bruneau, a cognitive neuroscientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who does research on human empathy. “It’s definitely true that one of the organizing principles of our psychology, of our brains, is that we’re strongly influenced by this perception of ingroup and outgroup.”

It’s not just the media — it’s your brain

Bruneau noted that human empathy is largely driven by whether the victims of harm are “ingroup” or “outgroup” — that is, whether we perceive victims to be similar, or different than us. This could be race, culture, or ideology-based. It all depends on the situation.

For Beirut, the media reaction may have been based on this. James Igoe Walsh, a professor who studies the relationship between terrorism and the media at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, told ThinkProgress that the media bias toward Paris was likely based on how relatable the victims were.

“We’re not deliberately favoring our ingroup, we just tend to so naturally and unconsciously,” he told ThinkProgress in a phone interview. “You could argue that since the attack the attack in Beirut was in the Middle East, and the Middle East is culturally and religiously distinct from the West — or the U.S. and Paris is more similar to the U.S. because it’s more Christian and white, basically, or Caucasian — we sort of associate them with being in the same larger group with the majority of Americans.”

Bruneau has done research that backs up this idea. In a 2012 experiment, for example, he showed a group of Arabs and Israelis articles about suffering in their own countries. When he did, the empathy zones in their brains began to light up. But when he showed them similar articles about South American suffering, those areas of the brain were quiet.

In another study, he and a team of researchers noted that something similar sometimes happens between white and black people when they see people’s hands pricked by a pin. More often than not, a white person’s brain will show “empathic resonance” when seeing a white hand pricked, but will not when a black hand is pricked. The same thing happens when the races are switched.

That doesn’t necessarily mean that white Americans care less about non-white people. For one, if you see a pricked hand on similar-colored skin, your brain likely triggers a response that you yourself are getting harmed, which understandably solicits a stronger cognitive response.

“We have a lot of nasty tendencies in our brains,” Bruneau said. “It doesn’t mean that we condone them.”

Walsh suggested that Americans’ focus on our “ingroup” just means that we care about them in a big way.

“There’s this concept in psychologically, it’s called ‘in-group love’ and it’s about this idea that we might not dislike people who are different from us, we just like people who are like us a lot and so when bad things happen to them, we pay a lot more attention to them,” he said. “When bad things happen to people that are not like us, it’s not that we are indifferent to that — we just care less.”

In modern journalism, reader interest drives media interest

While some have decried an “empathy gap” between the two attacks, the disproportionate media attention may also have more to do with a sense that the attacks on Paris were more shocking than the attack on Beirut. That was in part because many news media consumers have come to expect that violence is more or less commonplace in the Middle East.

“Paris, unlike Beirut, we don’t typically associate with a lot of terrorism. Whereas [in Beirut] that sort of fits in with their existing conceptions of what happens in the Middle East,” Walsh said.

Paris, Walsh noted, is a place that many have in America have experienced directly or through its cultural products than Beirut. American media consumers may feel a connection to Paris that followed news of the attacks there more closely than those that shook Beirut just a day before.

That interest is something news outlets respond to with more coverage, due, in no small part, to a media environment that’s driven by clicks and shares. Beyond that, Walsh said, the journalistic landscape is such that Paris is cheaper and easier to focus on.

“There’s a lot more media people in Paris than there are in Beirut, so even if the [Western] media had wanted to cover the Beirut attacks as intensively as they did the Paris attacks, it would be logistically a lot more challenging to do and probably a lot more expensive,” he said.

Expressions of empathy are ‘certainly not something you criticize’

Scientifically, it’s also true that there really is only so much tragedy a person can process and care about. And Bruneau warns that demonizing people who express real empathy for another country in need is not necessarily a great idea.

“Expressions of empathy of others can be wonderful, and it’s certainly not something you criticize,” he said. “What becomes problematic is when it’s so unequally distributed. If people don’t seek out news about the suffering of other groups, they might get a perception that they’re the only ones who are suffering.”

And there is hope, he said, that our brains won’t always be so geared toward supporting those who have the same colored skin as us.

“Our brains are incredibly flexible — Americans can feel like the French are an outgroup if they do something that opposes our policy goals. But at a time like this we feel like they’re our deepest compatriots,” he said. “So this is of course, the great hope, that we can always change who we are and how we think.” your social media marketing partner


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-1 # chemtex2611 2015-11-18 10:30
The issue is degree of shock. Paris has long had a peaceful, law and order society. Beirut is currently succeeding with a fragile peace. Moreover, Beirut and Lebanon are situated in an unruly neighborhood.

It is not about the value of the people who died, it is about the world's fatigue over death in the Middle East. With the exception of Jordan and Lebanon, I recall few Middle East governments that are willing to work for peace over conflict and cooperation between religions to resolve hunger, poor education, corruption and lack of jobs. While the relatively wealthier countries have a more peaceful environment, they have spent resources to maintain an environment of conflict in neighboring countries.
+10 # Shades of gray matter 2015-11-18 11:33
"Beirut"=Chaos lasted long enough that the less violent Beirut may not have taken hold in the faraway public mind. And there's the western, especially U.S., animosity toward presumed Arabs, Muslims. However, if the media would show photos of innocents, especially women and youngsters, harmed, distraught, maybe we would care more?
-13 # RLF 2015-11-18 14:36
Muslims killing muslims in a country that has babysat hezbolah for 20+ years...sorry if I don't give a shit.
+3 # PaineRad 2015-11-18 15:12
Part of it is as Chemtex says. Reports of violent attacks are far more frequent for Middle Eastern countries. It's like anything else that humans see and hear a lot. We become desensitized. We come to expect terrible news from that part of the country so much that it is not news.

Events like that in Madrid, Rome, Tokyo, Seoul, London, Chicago or Paris are not generally considered the new normal.

But that in no way legitimizes the way news organizations dealt with the Beirut atrocity. Page 6 in the NYT is unacceptable. Their job is make sure that we know what is going on, to wake us up, not to exacerbate numb and unconscious.
+1 # newell 2015-11-19 10:38
really think the west would care if the same thing happened in tokyo or seoul ......or africa or central america. white folk have to believe that they are superior or how could they justify demonizing, colonizing and exterminating so many brown people in the last 500 years.
0 # Radscal 2015-11-18 15:13
Regardless of any innate, natural ability or even drive to identify one's "in-group" v. the "other," defining who is in which group is a cultural and individual decision.

That is, group identification is largely learned, even if the ability to do that is genetic.

If we look at our own lives, we see that, especially in this age of "identity politics." ie. Religious affiliation is clearly a learned identity, and yet believers strongly identify with co-religionists , regardless of other differences, and feel separate from members of other religions, despite other similarities.

Heck, skinny kids in the West today generally consider their group not just different than, but superior to fat kids.

News and entertainment media have an enormous impact on our perceptions of group identification. Corporate media producers decide what events are "news" and then decide how much coverage to provide, and what "angle" to take on those events.

The Directors of those 6 corporations that provide 90% of our news have agendas, and know quite well how to promote them.
+2 # Archie1954 2015-11-18 15:25
Do you think there might just be the slightest unconscious feelings of guilt associated with the Paris attacks. After all, the US is responsible for the destabilization of the Middle East, the refugee crisis and the creation of ISIS.
+6 # RMDC 2015-11-18 16:05
Think Progress is the problem. When will it show the same shock and horror over the deaths of Palestinians that is shows for Israelis. All war is partisan. The americans think their dead are heroes, while the Afghans think their dead are heroes. War is just insanity. It brings out the worst in all people.

And we have the jingoistic media pouring gasoline on the fire of public sentiment.

The truth is that all people fo the world should be consumately shocked at what the US and NATO are doing to Syria via their proxies like ISIS, al Qaeda, FSA, and others.
+1 # Femihumanist 2015-11-18 16:23
It's for the same reason that in 2001, although the only country really complicit with the attacks in the US was Saudi Arabia, the US attacked Afghanistan where Bin Laden was holed up and not Germany where the plans were made. And now, we want to attack Yemen and not Belgium where the plans were made. Them is them and us is us.
0 # Shades of gray matter 2015-11-18 21:44
We may be "taught" in and out group categories, we may strive to constantly revise them more rationally and compassionately , but the subconscious mind is very powerful. I agree that the lack of regard for the Palestinians, and the lack of help for the Sudanese, is almost criminal. You are revealed by whom you care nothing for, no? The varying rigidity of boundaries probably very significant for understanding individuals, groups, humanity?
0 # Old4Poor 2015-11-19 14:22
It is also part of the not in my neighborhood thought process. We consider Paris part of "US" and Beirut not so much. Wars are supposed to be fought in other people's countries, after all, aren't they?

That's the American Way of War.
0 # Dion Giles 2015-11-21 03:29
The wholesale bombing of part of Beirut differs from the attacks in Paris, and in Mali, and in Bombay, and in the supermarket in Nairobi, in that it was killing people more or less at random because ideological targets were among them, whereas in the other instances the attacks were deliberate EXECUTIONS of selected non-belligerent s. The non-belligerent s were selected for individual execution purely because of a concert they attended, a restaurant they dined at, a hotel they stayed in. In some instances the selections were even more refined, with people “educated” in Moslem doctrine identified by their ability to recite bits of the Koran and excluded from the death sentence. In short, they were selected in roughly the same way that the German and collaborationis t Einsatzgrüppen selected people to be executed – often purely on individual racial grounds.

As distinct from bombings, the executions are carried out up close and personal. It’s the deliberate personal execution of their betters that distinguishes the executioners and their sympathisers as the vilest of the vile. This distinction is magnified in those who see the executed victims on social and ethnic grounds as “people like us”, but remains critical even when, like the Kenyan victims, they are not.

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