Whose life is more important?

Having been brought up by very humble ‘salt of the Earth’ parents who taught my sisters and I to be both generous of spirit and empathetic with all others, I’ve never really understood the way media coverage of an international disaster—plane crash, terror attack, earthquake–tends to focus on the nationalities of the dead and injured. Of course, I understand that local and regional media outlets depend on viewership and ratings for advertising revenue which therefore dictates that their reporting remains relevant to the local viewing population. But what about international news organizations and their wider responsibilities?
During my years of working and living in the Middle East, I often got my TV news from BBC World, Al Jazeera or Euro News because I wanted news coverage that included more stories from Africa, Asia and Europe than CNN International either deemed necessary or had the courage to air. These major world news organizations, however, do share one thing in common–when reporting on major disasters with casualties, they tend to place more focus on the number of Western lives lost, even when the number of Western casualties is significantly lower than the number of those killed or injured who just happen to be citizens of poorer developing countries. This bias in reporting has been most evident in media coverage of bombings and shootings labelled as ‘terrorist attacks’. I could mention a litany of both major and minor events that took place in the USA, France, Germany, Great Britain, Belgium, The Netherlands, Italy, Norway, Australia, Israel and others where the international news coverage exhibited this Western-Centric bias.
What accounts for this double standard?

Do we really believe that Western lives have more value than the lives of those living in the developing world? And if so, then what sort of reasoning are we using to make that determination? We’ve all seen the apocalyptic movies where the government has prioritized those that are worthy of survival, based loosely on their military rank, government position and scientific knowledge which is seen as a necessity for repairing whatever brand of planetary catastrophe is being visited on Earth’s inhabitants. Are intellect, productivity and efficient management skills the only important components of what we believe constitute a worthy person, or would we also choose compassionate individuals or those with purely artistic talents for survival?

Evolutionary link

If hard pressed, most of us would probably admit that we place a higher value on the lives of partners, family members and friends we love and would be more likely to look after their welfare first if faced with such choices following a natural or man-made (appropriate gender designation here!) disaster. However, when it comes to those we don’t know on a personal level, the waters can become a bit murkier. So, how do you think people living in different cultures would respond in such situations? From my experience, I’ve witnessed very similar behavior in cultures all over the world–protecting family/tribe first–and feel there’s probably an evolutionary link at work which is related to protecting one’s mating partner and offspring so that the genetic line can continue.

I read a survey several years ago (sorry, can’t find the link now) that ranked various countries on how willing their citizens were to intervene in providing assistance (medical or otherwise) to those they didn’t know in an emergency situation. Myanmar was at the top of the list, possibly because poverty and a historically hostile military government has forced locals to rely on one another for services that might otherwise be offered by local or national institutions. Many Western and Arabian Gulf countries also show up near the top of lists such as this since they are either very generous in donating money on a national government or individual level and also have citizens who are eager to volunteer their time and skills for international charity work.

So, what does this tell us about ourselves and those in other cultures?

I think it could be an example of the differing ways in which an individual’s death is dealt with in various cultures, and therefore the reaction locals may have to offer (or not to offer)  immediate help in order to sustain an individual’s life. If an individual grew up in a more ‘fatalistic’ culture where one accepts that all things are preordained by a superior force (God, Allah, Jehovah, Buddha, Lord Vishnu etc), then the individual might possibly feel that their intervention was interfering in what was meant to be–the person either lives or dies by the will of the diety. I’ve experienced such beliefs in several cultures where I’ve lived. This is not to say that people living in any particular country feel the pain of losing a loved one more or less than those in another, but the public face presented by those grieving and the funeral rituals involved can be quite different. In order to understand this phenomenon, we might also revisit the differences between collectivistic and individualistic cultures mentioned in paragraph four of my post on cultural relativity.

Based on the differing concepts of how an individual fits into the group, tribe or family can be instructive in helping to explain the differences in behaviors concerning death from place to place. So, the question here might be: Would a group mourn the loss of a loved one more deeply in an individualistic society where the person’s worth may be gauged on their unique personality and talents, as in the West, or in a more collectivist (group oriented) culture  where each member’s worth may be based more on their ability to provide direct financial aid or bring honor to the whole family/tribe, as in the Arabian Gulf? It isn’t my place to speak for others and pretend to know what they may or may not be feeling inside in such situations, but the key answer to these differences may lie in how people from different cultures show emotions in public.

For example, locals around the world usually comment that Americans are very friendly and direct, while people from East Asia, South Asia and SE Asia are more reserved and tend to feel it’s embarrassing to show one’s emotions in public. The Middle East, on the other hand, shares both of these aspects. The men are very friendly and almost aggressive in questioning new-comers about their lives, yet on a more personal level they are quite closed when it comes to discussing any private family affairs with an outsider. Another aspect that’s shared by SE Asian and Middle Eastern cultures is their preference to only discuss ‘pleasant’ topics and not delve into more serious (and therefore possibly divisive) topics such as war or death. I’ll discuss aspects of religious beliefs and customs in both these regions in upcoming posts, but let’s get back to my original focus on why media organizations (or at least their English language versions) tend to focus more attention and importance on the deaths of Westerners in the aftermath of a disaster or terror attack.

Of course, most of the major international news organizations are based in either the USA or European countries, with the exception of Al Jazeera (which makes sure Qatar’s economic welfare is front and center) and less popular internationally CCTV (China) and NHK (Japan), so that explains some of the bias. I believe the main factor at play here is the greater economic and political power, as well as the cultural dominance of the Western world (see The Global Reach of American Culture).

While I also think there are other contributing factors at work in determining who influences the decisions made by international news organizations, I feel there is an inherent cultural bias exhibited by many international media outlets that favors reporting on ‘white lives’ and is based, at least to some extent, on the West’s shared Colonial past. For example, my professional Indian friends in the Middle East feel that current BBC coverage of events in India is heavily tinged with subtle (and not so subtle) references which harken back to a time when the British in charge of administering the sub-continent drew clear distinctions based on white racial superiority. To be sure, the imprint of this cultural bias manifests itself in many other ways, but is most clearly evident on a daily basis when we watch our favorite TV channel to catch up on the day’s events.

My personal favorites

While I do appreciate how busy everyone is these days just keeping up with the aspects of life we deem to be absolutely necessary, I also think if we want to be good citizens of our planet we need to be well informed by reading (or at least scanning) from a variety of news sources each day. Remember we all shoulder the responsibility of trying to create a better world. What affects one, affects all in our hyper-globalized world. How can we make informed decisions unless we educate ourselves (and our children!) about the lives of the garment workers in Bangladesh who make our clothes or the Chinese workers who spend their days toiling away in massive factories manufacturing our smartphones and almost everything else we use in our offices and homes?

So…drum roll…here are my ratings of the major international TV news organizations: 1) BBC World is best for its variety and quality of news, entertainment and arts and produces a great deal of original educational programming, 2) Al Jazeera is excellent for its more thorough coverage of Africa as well as its hard-hitting documentaries, 3) Euro News and France 24 do an good job of covering all things European plus they cover the most hyped international stories of the day, 4) CNN…well…basically, I try to avoid watching it. While I do enjoy a few of the program presenters, overall I’d label their coverage as being far too America-centric and celebrity driven–and superficial, as opposed to the more thought-provoking way news is delivered on BBC and Al Jazeera.

Of course, all the major media outlets toe the same line to some extent so please don’t forget to search for reliable alternative sources of national and international news online as well. Once you have your trusted sources saved in your browser, it’s quick and easy to scan a number of sources each day so that you’re getting a more well-rounded view of world events from various perspectives. An individual usually forms their world view based on family background, conversations with friends, the news sources we utilize and our own life experiences. Are you a life-long learner with an open mind to new ways of seeing the world or are you stuck in a rigid pattern of only listening to those who agree with your opinions?

I’ll end this post with one final compelling question: how much do you think the corporate hair-dressing budget is on a weekly basis for all those perfectly coiffed celebrity presenters on CNN?

peace, henry

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Author: Henry Lewis

Unconventional artist, writer, videographer and teacher. Personal Quote: It isn't easy being me ;-)

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