Hacking the narrative: the media reaction to criticism of Paris-Beirut coverage
The 2015 Paris attacks will be remembered as one of the most widely covered tragedies of the year, but they may also stand out for the mainstream media’s wide-ranging reaction to massive critiques of its coverage. I look at how the post-attack reactions and rebuttals affect reporting and what impact this may have on future coverage in my December column for Bold Magazine, republished below.
Hacking the narrative: the media reaction to criticism of Paris-Beirut coverage
By Habib Battah
Bold Magazine // December 2015
Hours before the coordinated attacks in Paris, I began outlining a critical response to the media coverage of twin bombings in Beirut a day earlier. Of course by the time I began typing, the story had changed and suddenly everyone was talking about France, which only magnified the minimalist and dehumanizing treatment of the unnamed victims in Lebanon. A couple of Lebanese bloggers also articulated this point and I integrated their posts into the piece. Having written these types of critiques dozens of times, I didn’t expect much of a reaction. The downplaying of Arab casualties has never been a hot topic.
But nearly 20 minutes after my critique was uploaded on Al Jazeera’s website, the New York Times–whose coverage was central to the problems I had raised– published an entirely new article, now virtually admitting the reporting was a problematic as I and others had suggested. The new article and its headline: “Beirut, Also the Site of Deadly Attacks Feels Forgotten” was a far cry from that of the initial Times piece “Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Stronghold…” (a term media critics have protested over the years because it implies ordinary victims walking down the street are somehow automatically implicated in the party as combatants.)
A day earlier, when the initial piece was published, complaints began to roll in on Twitter and the first headline changed several times from “Deadly Blasts Hit Hezbollah Area” to “Deadly Blasts Hit Crowded Civilian Area.”
Beyond the headlines: “Forgotten Beirut” as a sub genre
The Times reporter, Beirut Bureau chief Anne Barnard, tweeted that she had requested the change, seeming to indicate that audience pressure on social media had no impact on editorial decisions. But had it impacted the reporter? In exchange of direct messages, Barnard later admitted that she was only “alerted” to the headline after a complaining tweet, maintaining that she would have made the change “regardless”.
Yet pieces authored by Barnard in 2014 and 2013 used the term Hezbollah stronghold were never changed and remain online to this day.
It wasn’t just the headline. The body of the Barnard’s follow-up article saw a dramatic shift from a focus entirely on the geopolitical elements, i.e. Hezbollah’s deployment in Syria to a focus nearly entirely on the victims who were now quoted for the first time. There was also rich detail about the civilian infrastructure obliterated by the blasts, such as the marketplace and neighborhood, which were also missing in the earlier report. The second Times piece even acknowledged the critique of its “stronghold” headline and quoted a local blogger who wrote: “When my people died, they did not send the world into mourning.”
The New York Times remake story was widely circulated, and it, along with my critique in Al Jazeera and others were quoted in subsequent pieces by CNN, The Huffington Post, Time magazine and others. Within a day, there were suddenly hundreds of articles about “forgotten Beirut,” which by now had become a sub genre of the Paris story. In all my years of pointing out the Western media’s downplaying of Lebanese or Palestinian lives, I had never seen a critique taken so seriously by mainstream outlets. Had social media helped influence the debate, finally forcing major new organizations to take non-Western casualties more seriously?
Interestingly, a counter-critique quickly emerged, with some major publications suggesting the media wasn’t to blame for a lack of coverage; it was readers who had simply gotten their facts wrong.
Leading this chorus of chiding readers was the prominent American writer Max Fisher who noted: “The media has, in fact, covered the Beirut bombings extensively…Yet these are stories that… readers have largely ignored.”
The Washington Post’s Cairo correspondent Erin Cunningham resorted to Facebook to publicly air her anger with the critics, asserting that she and others had risked their lives to tell stories from war zones: “Don’t say journalists don’t cover it, because they do… every single day. They get hurt doing it, they die doing it… In fact, they care about the stories more than you do.”
Thankfully, a reality check came via The Economist which published a statistical graph proving the glaring mathematical incorrectness of such analyses by revealing that compared to over 2.5 million articles about Paris on the day of the attack, the coverage of Beirut was literally non-existent with about 5,000 mentions (many undoubtedly brief or related to Paris) and still less than 0.1 percent of search results by comparison to the tragedy in France.
But how could respectable publications and senior reporters rely on a purely numerical analysis and thus completely ignore the content or length of the articles they were supposedly analyzing– the journalistic structures and formats, the headlines and paragraphs that failed to humanize or personalize Beirut deaths? These were not young, bright Parisians who died, they were ‘Hezbollah people.’ The massacre in Beirut was not an attack on humanity, it was an attack on Hezbollah. At least that’s how it was framed by mainstream media, regardless of the mere existence of articles or a handful of self-congratulatory reporters on the scene.
In some respects, he was right. For many, Paris and other Western capitals appear as a haven of stability compared to Beirut and other cities of the global south such as Garissa, Kenya, Baga Nigeria, Baghdad or Sanaa just to name a few of the places devastated by major attacks on civilians this year or this week.
But what many Western news outlets seemed to have completely missed is that the very sense of security inside the Western bubble highlights why it is so important to discuss the double standards applied to Paris and Beirut victims.
The illusion of “safe zones”
Instead of searching for justifications on why it was “okay” not to cover Beirut, correspondents should be asking how it could be okay to ignore entire parts of the world. Instead of dismissing Beirut and non-Western cities as culturally foreign grey zones, perhaps journalists could attempt to see what these different regions have in common. This does not mean a mere call for tears or empathy. More often than not, the Western powers have and continue to play an intimate role in the conflicts of the Middle East, Africa and beyond. The idea that the general Western public feels those places are alien is less a rational fact than a broad ignorance of the role their government (and tax-dollars) have been playing there, be it through direct or covert military operations, political support or trade in weapons, oil and other commodities, that are key to Western jobs and industries.
And instead of pushing away global inequality by blaming readers or political leaders, the media should also accept some responsibility for its instrumental role in creating the narratives and frames that inform the actions of policy makers, politicians and the readers who vote them in power.
Fortunately, as seen by the example of the New York Times, this introspection has begun to happen at some levels. And for all the trenchant responses described above, there have been dozens of other pieces thoughtfully calling the coverage into question. But beyond the mere acknowledgment of global tragedies, the Beirut-Paris moment also provides an opportunity to look deeper at the myth of global ‘safe zone’ segregation and begin to question the structures that perpetuate its perceived existence.