A truck filled with military-grade explosives was detonated in the middle of a busy intersection outside the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Mogadishu, Somalia Oct. 14. Two hours later, another explosion went off in the city’s Medina District, close to Somalia National University’s campus.
In the deadliest attack in Somali history, and one of the world’s most lethal terrorist attacks in years, 358 lives were taken in the blast and another 276 were left injured, according to Al Jazeera.
While this was the worst attack Somalia suffered, it definitely wasn’t the first. For years Somalis have been the victims of bombings by the extremist group al-Shabab — which is likely responsible for the recent explosions. The decades of violence have left the country unstable and impoverished with little progress in terms of recovery.
The attacks in Somalia outranked the deaths of any recent attacks in the Western world. Compared to 358 fatalities of the Mogadishu bombing, 120 were killed in the Barcelona attacks, 59 people were killed in the Las Vegas shooting and 22 were killed in the Manchester bombing.
However, the Western media responded with little intensity or emotion to the attack in Somalia. There were no trending hashtags nor viral images spread on the feeds of social platforms. Most newspapers, websites and networks crafted an obligatory recount of the incident, quickly running over the numbers and the basic details and then moving on to the next story of the week — one they knew would connect more to their readers and viewers.
If this attack happened in Times Square, the media would have stopped in its tracks. Clamoring for information, people would turn toward their Facebook feeds and 24-hour news stations for every last detail they could provide on the tragedy, from the background of the attacker to the minute-by-minute recount of the moments leading up to the explosion. Social media platforms would have been full of stories and tributes to the victims and first responders. Celebrities and popular figures would eagerly circulate the hashtag #PrayforNYC. The coverage would consume the attention of the world for an entire week, sparking debates about increasing security or respectful support for the victims.
So why don’t the people of Somalia, who suffered a far greater loss in this case and endure the threat of terrorism on a daily basis, get the same coverage and attention of those in the United States and other Western nations?
In the end, it most likely boils down to one factor: their lives don’t look like ours.
Even when the most unimaginable tragedy occurs, it’s hard for people to empathize with those who don’t remind them of their own families, coworkers and neighbors. Our daily lives don’t resemble their daily lives. We practice different religions, speak different languages and come from different cultures.
However, when white Europeans and Americans see tragedies from across the pond, they empathize with the people of Las Vegas and Paris. We know that if it happened in London it could happen in Boston, and vise-versa, making it all the more real and terrifying for the Western world.
This limited supply of Western empathy thereby creates a supply and demand relationship: the journalists provide the stories and the viewers will respond to them.
In 2015, a study conducted by The Nation found that for every person killed in a Western attack, 660 articles were written; for non-Western attacks, there were only 60 articles written per victim.
A similarly biased swing of coverage was found in a study conducted by media outlet FiveThirtyEight, which calculated the “odds ratio” of attacks in different countries covered by The New York Times. Compared to other nations, France was 5.9 times as likely to be covered than any other country. Somalia, on the other hand, was only 0.5 times as likely to be covered.
Within the United States, the slow response to Puerto Rico is an example of the media neglecting the stories of people of color — even though they share the same citizenship. Another FiveThirtyEight study of media coverage after Hurricane Maria’s initial landfall on Puerto Rico found that network news programs spoke significantly fewer sentences about Hurricane Maria than about hurricanes Harvey and Irma, according to data from the TV News Archive. Puerto Rico was initially seen as less important because, like Somalia, their lives don’t look as “American” as ours. Coverage didn’t pick up until the following Monday, when President Donald Trump made controversial statements about the mayor of San Juan on Twitter, grabbing the media’s attention.
It’s unreasonable to demand Western media companies shift their focus entirely to the events on the other side of the world. They have a specific audience to cater to, and it’s only logical that when an American hears about an attack on their own soil, they will want to know as much as possible about what transpired and its implications moving forward.
However, when an event such as what happened in Mogadishu transpires, the media should take it upon themselves to not just ramble off a formulaic newscast, but to remind viewers of the human toll it created. The coverage doesn’t have to last 24 hours or sensationalize the situation, but it should explore who exactly was affected, tell the stories of the victims and educate the viewer about the cultural context of the community that was hurt. It should remind the viewer or reader that these victims, who may seem radically different or incredibly distant, are still human.
Responsibility also lies in the hands of the consumer, who dictates what the media decides is worth covering. The more we express interest in news outside of our Western bubble, whether it’s shown in what we post on social media or the stories we choose to click on, the more the media will shift their focus to an evenhanded coverage of international events.
The media and its consumers are complicit in the under coverage of non-Western events, but they have the power to shift the bias. It requires the media to be courageous in their choice of programming, as well as viewers to attempt to understand what may be outside their comfort zone. Not only will we learn to become better global citizens, but we can give a voice to those who are often invisible.
Our attention shouldn’t be limited to our own borders and neither should our empathy. We certainly owe the people of Mogadishu both.