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A death toll is just a number; upsetting the status quo is what makes an event newsworthy

By Josh Wells

In response to Matthew Hill’s article on the American centric nature of news.

If news was truly concerned with importance then it would be devoted to covering absolute poverty, nuclear disarmament and the environmental crisis. However, we do not except nor do we desire our news to operate in such a manner, we desire information about the world but not necessarily the most important information. We have an understanding of the world, that is to say, we have a perception of the status quo and it’s when our perception of the status quo is wrong or is subject to change that an event becomes truly newsworthy.

Matthew Hill’s article questions why an attack on the US should receive more coverage than a conflict in Syria with upwards of 80,000 fatalities.  One of the main factors in this is due to the mind being unable to conceive 80,000 people; the distinction between 50,000 and 100,000 cannot be fathomed by most people. Once people are aware of the fact that there is a significant loss of life the exact number becomes little more than a regrettable number to most people. Therefore there is nothing newsworthy, nothing surprising about additional deaths in a war where the public expect there to be such fatalities. However, in America bombs in the streets are not an everyday occurrence, America is often viewed as one of the safest countries in the world therefore when an attack does occur; it is more newsworthy, not because the lives lost are worth more but because it is an act against the status quo.

The dominance of America in the recent news cycle is not the product of diplomatic soft or hard power nor is it the product of the dominance of an American culture through cooperate institutions such as MacDonald’s or Coco-Cola. Whilst there is undoubtedly an appeal of perceiving America as an unjust power which craves attention from all corners of the globe, this is simply not the case in regards to recent events such as the Boston bombing.

Matthew Hill’s article left me questioning how else would he like the news to be structured? Would it be preferable on some sort of utilitarian utility calculus, where by the news provider identifies which story has the most suffering and that becomes headline news? Does the fact that we share more culture with a country like America compared to Syria count for nothing when we identify the significance of a story to those in our country? That is not to say it is more important from an impartial point of view, but we are not in an impartial situation. We are in a position where if the same act were to happen in two different cultures, the culture in which  is more similar to our own becomes more newsworthy to us because it is more conceivable for such an act to happen in our culture.

If we were to impartially look at events in regards to issue areas such as the economy, then countries which are doing worse than many European countries, would dominate the news. Consequently we would be blissfully unaware of our own economic performance and other countries in Europe whose economic performance affects our lives significantly more than other economies.

This vision of a utopia that the other article paints, seems close to a dystopia and in my analysis of that article I cannot help but be reminded of the quote that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Before desiring news outlets to present news in order of importance just think about what that might mean, you may never know what is happening in your country again.


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