Coverage of Barcelona attack highlights ’empathy gap’

How the media covers terrorism in predominantly white countries narrows readers' worldview.

Candles and bunches of flowers placed by people rest on the ground in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain CREDIT: AP Photo/Francisco Seco
Candles and bunches of flowers placed by people rest on the ground in Las Ramblas, Barcelona, Spain CREDIT: AP Photo/Francisco Seco

The coverage of the Thursday’s attack in Barcelona followed the script of most attacks in European or North American countries: incident, confirmation, a casualty/injury count that varies, the hunt for responsible parties, finger-pointing and analysis on “how this could possible happen,” and then, finally, portraits of a grieving, yet resilient community.

All of this is logical – having tourists and locals alike intentionally mowed down on a balmy Thursday evening is horrific, and reporting on the attack and the security implications that follow are standard and necessary.

But the ongoing reporting from Thursday’s attack is yet another reminder of the fact that the Western media does not treat all attacks the same. How many attacks in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq, or Pakistan get such attention?

For instance, there was no coverage in the Western media of the 13 people killed in a market bomb blast in Yemen on Monday, and on Thursday, the very same day as the Barcelona attack, three children were killed in a missile attack in Zabul, Afghanistan. Last week, an attack in Quetta, Pakistan killed 15 people and wounded 32 others.


John Wihbey, associate professor of journalism and media at Northeastern University in Boston, Massachusetts, told ThinkProgress that there is no one reason driving the decisions behind the different coverage of these attacks.

“There’s some xenophobia/stereotyping that is at work, and at the same time its indisputable that more planes fly into Paris and Barcelona from U.S. airports than say, Yemen, so I think there’s a mix of both in terms of why the distribution of attention in terms of coverage and why judgments of newsworthiness tend to focus on Europe and largely white countries,” said Wihbey.

He said that things are changing, as social and information networks are bringing people closer, and yet, the problem persists, despite conversations about “how we often neglect corners of the world where it seems violence is a kind of habitual way of life,” said Wihbey.

But living in a place ravaged by war and violence does not mean that a community is immune to feeling loss. Where are the stories on, say, how people in the Afghan province of Sar-e Pul are coping after ISIS beheaded 50 people in a village there two weeks ago (compared to the coverage of the May 22 Manchester attack)? What do we do to our readers when we drop the ball on reporting these narratives?

“Well, you’re certainly narrowing their understanding of the world by not covering more of the event, and I do think that as the world grows closer, we are setting our readers up for a lot of surprise and shock, probably not preparing them as well as we could for this interconnected world…we do them a disservice,” said Wihbey.


He said that the September 11 attacks signaled to Americans that they need to pay attention to events in places like Afghanistan or Yemen.

But even within the United States, coverage of terror attacks is uneven – a recent study out of Georgia State University found that “attacks by Muslim perpetrators received, on average, 449% more coverage than other attacks.”

“It’s indisputably true that there are more nativist, supremacist, right-wing groups in the United States that could do quite a bit of damage in many communities across the country, as compared to probably the few potential [foreign] terrorist cells in the United States.”

Wihbey also notes that the media does, at times, takes it cues from policymakers — so, for instance, after the September 11 attacks, because politicians were focused on foreign events, the media did the same. The cycle, though, did not last long. “It didn’t last as long as you would hope, and then there was a turning inward.”

“Some of the obligation is on the media, to just do the right thing and to prepare their audience. But some of them is on the policymakers in Washington and the elected leaders to also be directing attention,” said Wihbey.

However, given what Wihbey describes as President Donald Trump’s “incoherent” messaging, it’s up to the media to “get out ahead” and help readers understand foreign policy.


“I do think that both President Obama and President George W. Bush operated in ways to better engage American citizens in foreign affairs. Trump has had this strong, isolationist streak. It’s hard to know what that means,” said Wihbey.