Selective sympathy: Why some terror attacks receive more attention than others
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Selective sympathy: Why some terror attacks receive more attention than others

ONE week ago, the world was shaken by the bombings in the Belgian capital which took the lives of at least 31 innocent people. The public was united in its expression of sympathy and support: Facebook users applied an overlay of the Belgian flag over their profile pictures in solidarity, while iconic landmarks such as the Eiffel Tower and Brandenburg Gate were lit with Belgium’s colors.

Due to the widespread, global use of social media, many national occurrences have in turn become international events, particularly when it comes to tragedies and disasters.

But are some tragedies and disasters more worthy of attention than others?

Selective sympathy

In March alone, six countries across the world experienced brutal terrorist attacks. But ask yourself this: how many of those did you actually notice, much less, have a response to?

Even I’m not exempt from this – while the bombings in Lahore, Pakistan on Sunday and Brussels, Belgium last Tuesday caught my attention and sympathy, on a far lesser scale, similar attacks in Iraq, Nigeria, Turkey and the Ivory Coast had barely made a ping on my radar.

Which led me to think: has it been so far drummed into our minds that violence in Middle Eastern and African countries is commonplace that we have become desensitized to the pain and suffering of their people?

Turkey saw 10 terrorist attacks last year, while Nigeria endured 43 – yet how many people shared the hashtags #PrayforTurkey or #PrayforNigeria? In the aftermath of the Lahore blasts on Easter Sunday, which killed 65 – primarily women and children – the New York Times wrote a piece highlighting the frequency of terror attacks taking place in Pakistan, reducing their victims to nothing more than statistics and numbers.

Not all terrorist attacks are reported equally

A recent study by The Nation revealed that attacks in Western countries are given far more media coverage compared to ones in non-Western countries. Not only that, but how they are covered also differs.

The study focused on media reports of three terrorist attacks in November last year: Beirut (Nov. 12), Baghdad (Nov. 13), and Paris (Nov. 13). The Islamic State claimed responsibility for all three blasts, which killed nearly 200 people collectively.

While many media outlets have defended themselves against critics’ accusations of biased coverage, the numbers say it all:

“On the day of each respective attack, there were 392 articles online about the attack in Baghdad and 1,292 articles about the attack in Beirut. On the day of the Paris attack, there were over 21,000.”

The report went on to say that in 2015, the number of terrorism incidents where 50 or more people died came in at 26. However, most of these large-scale attacks had happened in non-Western countries, and had for the most part been overlooked by the international media – the only attack with major casualties that happened in the West that year was in Paris.

And indeed this tendency is reflected in the latest spate of attacks: we know more about the victims of the Brussels bombings than those of the other attacks because the media has circulated their photos alongside brief, personal paragraphs about them, while the victims of the other attacks that took place this month remain faceless and nameless.

According to Sean Darling-Hammond, who conducted the study, terror incidents in non-Western countries were often written in a detached style, while if Westerners were involved, the coverage would focus on them and their story, lending a more “human” angle. 

Taking into account the fact that the articles used in the study were in English, meaning that local news reports written in other languages were not taken into consideration, such media bias is still a cause for concern, as news consumers around the world mainly rely on English reports to keep themselves informed on international events and issues.


While the terror attacks in Paris and Brussels have inspired global outpourings of compassion and empathy, residents of other cities and countries which have been struck by similar tragedies can only ask, “What about us?” as their suffering has remained largely ignored by the world.

However, those weary of disproportionate public attention on events happening in specific parts of the world have been pushing back against apathy and ignorance via social media.

There’s no denying that the media plays a major role in influencing public discourse and shaping our views of the world. While it has become clear that the media industry is not without its flaws, it must be said that there are many complex factors at play that contribute to them, such as organizational structures, manpower and occupational practices.

This is why social media has become all the more important as an alternative means to getting news besides conventional media outlets – we can’t care about something if we don’t know about it.