The Paris-Beirut debate: Why news organizations paid more attention to the attacks in France

A woman takes a picture of Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, illuminated in the French national colors for the victims killed in Friday's attacks in Paris, France. (AP Photo / Markus Schreiber)

The Friday attacks in Paris that killed more than 120 left many American news organizations racing to get pieces in place for wall-to-wall coverage over the weekend. The story still dominated The New York Times’ front page on Monday, with four stories exploring various angles of the ISIS-planned strikes, their aftermath in France, and global ramifications. But it was a piece on an ISIS attack Thursday in Lebanon, tucked on page A6, that garnered more than 210,000 shares on social media by Tuesday, five times more than the four Paris-related stories combined.

 

“When my people died, no country bothered to light up its landmarks in the colors of their flag,” Elie Fares, a Lebanese…

Posted by The New York Times on Sunday, November 15, 2015

 

The latter story focused on the aftermath of bombings that killed 43 people last week in Beirut, particularly residents’ “anguish over the fact that just one of the stricken cities—Paris—received a global outpouring of sympathy.” The dispatch was among the most-shared stories the Times has ever posted to Facebook, International Editor Joe Kahn tells CJR in an email, “so it clearly resonated widely.”

Indeed, the Times story on a “forgotten” Beirut highlighted a mounting critique of how news organizations and the public alike divvy up precious resources and attention in a time of concurrent acts of violence.

Journalists, the commentary goes, assign different value to different lives. That’s hard to dispute, given spotty coverage of regions such as the Middle East and Africa when American interests aren’t at stake. While ISIS attacks in Paris claimed a larger number of innocents than they did in Beirut, the balance of coverage was far more lopsided.

The problem with this argument is that it oversimplifies the reality of news judgement, ignoring American-based media outlets’ obligation to American-based audiences. The attacks in Paris not only demonstrated that ISIS can project coordinated terror outside the Middle East, but they also hit as Western countries, including the United States, evaluate policies for admitting refugees trying to escape that same terror.

The Times, in this sense, served readers well by blanketing Monday’s front page with Paris-related coverage. For better and for worse, the crass calculation of what amounts to newsworthiness includes far more variables than a tragedy’s human toll.

 

[The tragedy] raises the question of how a country similar to the United States gets the right balance between security and civil liberties. That’s something Americans can relate to. We’ve spent the past 14 years trying to figure that out.

 

“I do think Paris was more newsworthy than Beirut for a host of reasons, including the death toll, the scale of the attack, and the challenge to intelligence agencies in the US and abroad that tend to work closely together,” Kahn says. “It is also true that coverage of terrorist attacks does vary according to other, more subtle factors, such as how surprising the attack is, how likely it is to impact policy among the Western powers, and how likely it is to resonate with large numbers of our readers.”

Surprise, impact, and resonance are essential factors in any news coverage, and they’re inherently unfair to residents in war-torn regions with cultures unfamiliar to most Americans. When Time’s Aryn Baker covered Afghanistan and Pakistan in the mid-2000s, she developed what she described in an essay Sunday as “Taliban math”:

“The first suicide bombing—in a market, in a capital city, in a school—was international news. In order for the next bombing to make a story, the number of dead had to be exponentially higher. I tried to pin down a ratio: how many Pakistani or Afghan dead would it take to generate the same newsworthiness as the death of an American?” 

The calculus in comparing coverage of France and Lebanon is somewhat different, but the general point about novelty stands. Previously based in Beirut, Baker wonders in an email to CJR: “What if there are more terror attacks in France, or elsewhere in Europe? Will they get the same kind of coverage [as Paris]?”

It’s a valid question—though also one best left unanswered. While The Washington Post’s Beirut-based correspondent filed a day-one story and follow-up piece on the attacks there, the bombings “weren’t entirely a surprise in a city where large-scale suicide attacks have long been part of the security fabric,” Post foreign editor Douglas Jehl writes in an email.

Coverage by the Post and many other American news organizations trailed off thereafter. In Paris, on the other hand, there’s been continued analysis of how the attacks fit into various political and security contexts. The bloodshed puts new pressure on President Barack Obama to defend his administration’s Syria policy—France is a longtime US ally—and his potential successors have taken up that debate on the campaign trail. Obama’s plan to settle 10,000 Syrian refugees, meanwhile, has found renewed opposition from Republican governors and lawmakers. Perhaps more importantly, ISIS has potentially tipped its strategic hand, says Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies Islamist movements.

“Up until now, ISIS has been reticent to organize high casualty attacks in the West,” Hamid says. “It’s a proto-state that governs large swaths of territory and has a particular governance project … . From an analytical standpoint, [the Paris attacks are] suggestive of a move toward focusing more on Western targets.”

This is to say nothing of the cultural resonance between American audiences and victims in France. The attacks occurred in familiar locations—at restaurants, inside a concert hall, outside a sports stadium—within a city that’s a huge destination for American tourists. What’s more, Hamid adds, the tragedy “raises the question of how a country similar to the United States gets the right balance between security and civil liberties. That’s something Americans can relate to. We’ve spent the past 14 years trying to figure that out.”

For the Post, whose European staff is normally split between London, Berlin, and Moscow, responding to the unfolding situation Friday “required something of a scramble,” Jehl says. Early on-the-ground coverage relied on a feature writer on vacation and a stringer based nearby. On Saturday, five additional staffers arrived from Italy, Germany, England, and Washington. Two more would join the team from Washington by Monday morning.

“The sheer audacity, sophistication, and far greater scale of the Paris attacks has demanded journalistic attention on a much greater scale,” Jehl says, “to help readers understand how such a thing could possibly have happened on a Friday night in the City of Light, so far from the Islamic State center of power in Syria, and to help trace the arc of what was so clearly a well-planned and coordinated attack.” 

David Uberti is a CJR staff writer and senior Delacorte fellow. Follow him on Twitter @DavidUberti.