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One-track sympathy

January 2005

How the media focus our attention, profitably, on one thing at a time. Thereby deflecting our attention from other issues that deserve better than they get.
The tidal wave disaster that occurred last month in the Indian Ocean has captured the world's attention and focused its sympathy and charity like nothing else since the World Trade Center tragedy in 2001. Both disasters are symptomatic of a form of mass mobilization of emotion by the media, usually brought on by a spectacular tragedy, which may be cathartic to the emoters, and of course assists some of those in need, but which seriously deflects attention from the real needs of the world.

What typically happens is that the media (as a whole), which regularly ignores reporting on the millions of poor and dying and victims of crime and tyranny in favor of "celebrity" gossip and similar clap-trap, quickly senses a goldmine when a spectacular event occurs. Their sudden focus on the poor and dying from the event is clearly not because they have a special concern for the poor and dying – if they did they would have been covering the much greater ongoing world-wide disaster all along. No, their interest is evidently in the spectacular nature of the immediate disaster, based on their knowledge that this will increase interest in their newspaper, TV or radio station, or whatever their media outlet is. And they're right. They're making a perfectly rational economic decision in ignoring the world's ongoing disasters of poverty, starvation, and violence, and giving huge ink to the immediate spectacular tragedy. The latter sells papers, the former doesn't. Crass? That's a fitting word for it.

And of course readers and viewers pick up on the tragedy of the day, and focus their full attention, and their full generosity, on it – how can they avoid it when the item completely dominates the news? – with the result that an insane amount of charitable contributions gets earmarked for the tragedy which at the moment touches the public's heart, while the even more tragic disasters which the media prefer to ignore continue to also be ignored by the public.

In September, 1991, some three thousand persons were killed in the attack by crazed islamists against the World Trade Center in New York. The media coverage of this tragedy was unprecedented, as was the emotional response – particularly by the American people. Contributions flooded in, and now, some three years later, the country has provided "compensation" to the families of the victims on the order of some three million dollars each, from both public and private sources.

During the same September, nearly 1500 Americans were murdered by other Americans. Over a two-month span the murders by the islamists and by violent Americans stood at about the same count. For the year 1991, the terrorists had murdered somewhat over 3000 Americans, while Americans had murdered nearly 20,000 Americans, largely unreported by the national media. (Which of these is the greater problem?? Where's the "War on American murderers"?) We can ask what the relatives of the victims killed by non-islamists received from the public. Basically, nothing.

Again, during the recent Indian Ocean disaster the world's media chose to direct people's attention exclusively toward that disaster. The disaster was of course horrific, and a number of the ravaged countries badly needed – and still need – outside help. But at the same time as a couple of million persons are directly affected by the Asian tsunami, many tens of millions of people around the world find themselves in equally desperate conditions – without food, water, shelter, basic services, or peace. By any common-sense measure, these many millions of destitute and dying persons should have received at least the same attention and assistance before the tsunami struck as the wave victims are receiving now.

Any chance of rectifying this unfortunate situation? Sadly, probably not. The media sells "News". If it isn't "new" they don't sell it. And the public? Well, we're only human.

© 2005 H. Paul Lillebo

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