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.
“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.
The pray for Paris campaign is such a racist thing, why not pray for Beirut as well, they were also attacked, oh wait they aren't white!
— The Political Petard (@PoliticalPetard) November 16, 2015
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.”