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Mohamed ElMeshad

Terrorism and the corporate Western media

The perceived selectivity of media outlets is here to stay [Getty]

Date of publication: 23 November, 2015

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Comment: Critics saying global corporate-owned media selectively focuses on terror tragedies in the West have a point, but it should be no surprise, given current international tensions, writes Mohamed Elmashed.

As the magnitude of the horror of the Paris terrorist attacks on November 13 became apparent, those of us following the news from within Europe had the feeling that, as of the next morning, things would be different.

There would be a change - or at least slight modification - in the "world order". The Charlie Hebdo massacre came to mind. International politics then came to a standstill for the "day of unity" in response to the gruesome murder of 17 of the magazine's employees.

How would it be after 129 innocent civilians were gunned down in the same city?

Sure enough, the attacks seemed to dominate social, broadcast and print media, while becoming a major political talking point in a way that eclipses any other events with comparable death tolls, such as the bombing just a few days prior in Beirut, or the tragedy a few days later in Nigeria, or what is happening on an almost daily basis in Syria and Iraq.

     To be sure, what happened in France deserves every ounce of the attention it is receiving

This in itself prompted a backlash from many commentators across different media regarding the seemingly disproportionate global outpour of sympathy and attention towards tragedy in the West compared with the rest of the world.

To be sure, what happened in France deserves every ounce of the attention it is receiving. The loss of life, and the context in which it occurred should - as it has - cause the international community to pause, pay its respects and assess the ramifications of such an act and how to amputate the ever-expanding appendages of the barbaric Islamic State group.

But addressing the prioritisation within global media of attacks within the hegemonic Western democracies requires an investigation into what it is we mean when say "global" media.

Is there such a thing as "global" media to begin with? Do we just assume that whatever travels farthest is global, even though it may be local or regional to many? With some preliminary scrutiny, the trend in the question seems perfectly logical, at least from the perspective of the media.

In 2011, Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera played an important role in covering the Arab Spring uprisings and bringing them into the living rooms of millions of people. However, it mostly spoke to Arab audiences.

The Arab Spring became a global event when it took a prime position in every American and European media outlet, especially when their own reporters went over to send back dispatches as the primary "global" news source from the region.

On the other hand, the terrorist attacks in France will become a major topic in the Middle East, regardless of whether or not Arab media outlets send reporters to relay the news back.

The media sector is a major venue for so-called globalisation. In reality, the truly global news emissions are from Western outlets, and so they would naturally focus on the Paris attacks more than they would on the Beirut bombings.

     Social media is also not the pluralistic global village it is touted to be

Most other media are local or regional and so the young, "connected" generation will communicate in media and will be more exposed to news stories that originate in the same language, mostly English, despite from where the news originates geographically.

It is this phenomenon that has allowed Donald Trump to become an international household name in the context of US elections that are more than a year away.

A university student in Ankara, Turkey, may be moved in one way or another by Trump and have an opinion towards him. At the same time, very few people in North America will know about the highly influential People's Democratic Party in Turkey, in the context of the immensely significant Turkish elections that occurred just this month - much less have an opinion on the movement.

The overpowering one-way flow of culture, ideas and entertainment from West to the rest creates an unfortunate situation where it is easier for the rest of the world to react to the Paris attacks in an emotionally more complex way than it did towards the Nigeria attacks, or for that matter, a possible genocide in Myanmar.

Social media, in that sense, is also not the pluralistic global village it is touted to be. Shared news items that target the broadest audience on most social media outlets is also usually in English, and coming from the same sources of international Western mass media.

These outlets are also corporations that exercise de facto control over some of the globe's "trending topics" and exercise control over much of the content shared.

Facebook's founder, Mark Zuckerberg, reportedly oversaw the production of an app which allowed users to layer a translucent French flag over their profile pictures, while Google and many of its subsidiaries inserted logos and slogans in solidarity with the French population.

Facebook was also criticised for being selective in its response to terrorism by activating a Safety Check application to help during the Paris attacks, but not during the Beirut attacks. Zuckerberg did activate Safety Check during the recent bombings in Nigeria, after accusations of bias.

     The outrage over this perceived selectiveness is perhaps based on a false premise that Facebook is a bastion of pluralism in a commonly shared space

The outrage over this perceived selectiveness is perhaps based on a false premise that Facebook is a bastion of pluralism in a commonly shared space.

It's not. Facebook has owners who have theoretical control over everything that goes on and off its website. Its owners owe its users very, very little. They are as much gatekeepers of information as the media moguls or news barons.

The reality must be clear now more than ever, that the perceived selectivity of media outlets is normal, given the status quo of the "global" media. Expecting this phenomenon to change within the same exact framework will not reap any results. The framework itself must change.

Mohamed ElMeshad is a journalist and a PhD candidate at SOAS, focusing on the political economy of the media. He extensively worked in Egypt, Bahrain, West Africa, the UK and US. Recently, he contributed to the Committee to Protect Journalists’ book,
Attacks on the Press (2015).

Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of al-Araby al-Jadeed, its editorial board or staff.

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