Unequal Tragedies

We must ensure that similarly tragic events receive equal media attention

Nearly two weeks ago, Germanwings flight 9525 crashed in southern France, killing all 150 passengers, pilots, and cabin crew aboard. Four days ago, al-Shabab affiliated gunmen stormed Garissa University College in eastern Kenya, murdering 147 primarily Christian students. The difference in media coverage has been stark: a quick search of the New York Times website reveals over 300 separate pieces about the crash; a similar search for the Kenya attack returns far fewer. To be sure, an aviation accident is serious news—it wreaks destruction on human lives and affects a mode of transport that over 650 million people use annually in the United States alone. Yet fundamentally, as Americans, as people, and as college students, we should care just as much about 150 people who die in East Africa, in China, or in the Ukraine—especially when they are students—as we do when the tragedy involves 150 air travellers.  

The juxtaposition of these two events of such similar death tolls and at such similar times makes the contrast even clearer. The Kenyan incident would seem to have all the markings of a riveting breaking news story: terrorism, a school shooting, and a bloody outcome. Were this same tragedy to befall an American or European university, it’s hard to imagine any other story so much as making the evening news. Indeed, if 12 murders at Charlie Hebdo could bring two million Parisians and dozens of world leaders to the streets of Paris, what would the deaths of 147 students do? 

As we have opined in the past, not all terrorist attacks and major crises are treated equally. To the credit of the Western press, the attack on Garissa University has been given some degree of prominence. Still, the balance is far from ideal. It is imperative that equal coverage be given to equally significant events.  

Ultimately, however, the problem lies with us. As consumers of media, our clicks and views decide where news agencies go, where they devote their coverage, and what they highlight. In an era of BuzzFeed and Upworthy, when CNN devotes an entire month to endless where-is-MH370 speculation, and where even the The New York Times posts a post-Germanwings crash article devoted solely to begging readers to write in the comments section about their personal feelings on air travel, news organizations know that the surest route to our page views is through sensational news.  

News agencies are motivated by advertising dollars, and advertising dollars are motivated by us. When society clamors for minute-by-minute updates on Germanwings, that it shall get.  We must be less parochial in how we view the world, instead caring just as much about far-flung injustice as backyard drama. If we want investigative journalism instead of top ten lists, we must read it. If we want serious international coverage instead of a 75-to-1 ratio of Germanwings to Kenya coverage, we must subscribe to it. And if we want journalistic depth instead of clickbait, we must opt to click on the substance. The differences between the coverage of Kenya and Germanwings are just a microcosm of the broader media landscape, but they offer an opportunity for a way forward: an equal focus on similarly tragic events.