We’ve all seen the tirade of Facebook posts concerning the victims of the Boston Marathon bombing that occurred recently. Apart from the messages of solidarity, some posts also highlighted the apparent ‘bias’ in reporting. They pointed out that other incidents that occurred on the same day, such as the US bombing of an Afghan wedding that ‘killed 30 civilians’, did not receive the same amount of coverage.
The usual accusations of media bias soon followed, and the perpetual debate on whether the media should overlook events that occur in the Middle East, and are perpetrated by the United States, was re-ignited.
For the record, the report of the US bombing was later revealed to be an old article from 2002— the incident happened about 11 years ago.
Regardless, the accusations remain justified. Thousands of people die every day—be it from poverty, starvation, AIDS… Why aren’t they given the same attention? Should they be given the same attention? Where should the line be drawn between a human life and a statistic?
Personally, I don’t think death tolls can be compared. Not because of the conventional ‘a life is a life’ argument, though. I think to compare the death toll between incidents is a misrepresentation of how we perceive death in the first place. Death is the absence of a life— I think it is not the absence itself that we react to, but the memories and values that the life in question represented that matters to us. To use a crude analogy, think of how you’d react if you lost a £50 note— you’d be upset about the loss of the £50 value, rather than about the absence of a piece of paper in your wallet.
Comparing numbers is therefore, I think, a misrepresentation of human nature. This can partly explain why the media bias exists— with a western-dominated media, the loss of American lives would naturally entail a greater loss of ‘embodied significance’ than, say, Chinese lives (don’t take offence— I’m Chinese), thus sparking a larger response. The fact that they were innocent civilians amplifies this significance, just as we would react more to civilian deaths rather than military deaths in war.
This ‘embodied significance’ opens the door to subjectivity, which is completely natural— after all, different people mean different things to each of us. However, this leads to another form of bias, one that can be manipulated, which makes it much more worrying.
For human beings, this ‘embodied significance’ is usually in the form of shared memories, values and potential. It is the last one that is of concern. Think about it— one of the first reactions towards of a loss of a child surely concerns ‘could have been’s. What is worrying is when we consciously, or subconsciously, hold prejudices when judging potential, which is seemingly being determined by the media.
We are always told that children in Africa are dying– shown images of it, even. I don’t know about you, but when I hear about this, ‘could have been’s don’t seem to be a part of my reaction. There seems to be a pre-conceived view of the potential, or lack thereof, of an African child that is reinforced by the barrage of negative image projections from the media; reports about chronic societal problems in developing countries flood our screen every day. Sure, these are important issues that need to be brought to attention, but there don’t seem to be any positive reports to balance them out.
Even if you don’t hold this bias, it should worry you when this ‘potential’ starts being measured in monetary terms, as that would introduce all economic prejudices into the valuation of a life. Various US government agencies have run their own surveys as to how much a hypothetical life is worth– called the ‘Value of Statistical Life’, or VSL. It is currently held at $9.1 million USD. Broadly speaking the VSL is the ‘cost of death’, or to put it in another way, the potential profit of life.
Our bias at valuing other lives seems to be a much more pressing problem than selective reporting. The next time you see a Facebook post about the death of an innocent civilian, ask yourself, ‘How much am I worth?’