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I’m 45, and anyone around my age will remember the steady flow of pictures of dead and dying babies from Africa (particularly Ethiopia) coming across our television screens during the 1980s. Stomachs bloated, mouths and eyes covered with flies, lying in their mothers’ arms (or in the arms of Western aid workers): these children were the physical embodiment of human tragedy on a scale those of us living in the Europe and the United States could not fathom. These images were selected by international news agencies for their combination of emotional charge and symbolic value. Now, 30 years later—and on a far greater scale with the advent of social media—we see similar images from Gaza: children in a perpetual state of shock, pain or death.
But, distressing and moving as they are, the images coming out of Gaza, just as with the images which came out of from Africa, bump up against a much deeper, longer-term effect of international news reporting: dehumanization. A decade ago, I wrote the following in response to international media coverage of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami:
“Through the news, we have become accustomed to seeing people in the developing world as victims: victims of war, victims of famine, victims of disease, and victims of natural disasters. In their eternal state of victim-hood, these people have had their right to individuality and dignity stripped, and thus their corpses are fair game for the evening news.”
My point here was that media organizations were willing to show pictures of corpses stuck in trees or floating down streets precisely because these were nameless people from “developing nations.” There is no way a US or UK news agency would show bloated corpses of domestic victims floating down domestic rivers following a domestic national disaster. That would be “in bad taste” or “unprofessional,” while showing corpses following the tsunami was perhaps shocking, but certainly not considered outside the ethical bounds of journalism.
This brings us back to images of injured, dying or dead children from Gaza. When most large-scale, mainstream media organizations use such images to tell a story of horror, they forget their own, long-term participation in the dehumanization of the very people they now wish to humanize. By only covering places like Gaza during times of strife, and by not telling stories other than ones of human tragedy or violence, there is the normalization of (1) an overall lack of coverage, and (2) “crisis coverage” (only covering a place when something terrible happens). So, with this focus, these media versions of Gaza are not places of normal family life, love, work, intellectual curiosity, play, knowledge, mourning or human kindness. These are facets of human life we cover only in relation to our own backyards. Humanity is for us.
The predictable result is that a death in one of these far-off places is understood/seen as simply termination of a biological entity (a body stops breathing), while all of the other elements we associate with death within our own national contexts (mourning, the disruption of family life, loss of a parent/child, loss of income) are simply not there. They aren’t forgotten in the media coverage, because they never existed. This isn’t to say that people aren’t horrified and outraged by these images—many are—but rather that even this form of horror takes place within a broadly de-contextualized framework.
But there is one more layer to images coming from Gaza that needs to be addressed: the role of long-term Islamophobic media coverage upon how these images are likely received. It would be naive to assume that decades of intense media stereotyping (in films, TV, books and newspapers) of Muslims as unfeeling, violent fanatics does not play a role in how we (that’s a collective we) view death in Gaza, Iraq or Afghanistan. From Rambo to Homeland to the ease with which the media bought the tale of Saddam’s WMD, we have been inundated with examples of the insane jihadist Muslim; and, the argument that Palestinians use their children as human shields plays into this perception of Muslims as ice-cold, bloodthirsty savages.
So, when media organizations now show the dead and suffering children of Gaza, they force media consumers to overcome decades of dehumanization and relentless Islamophobia in order to empathize. Some can, but my guess is that many cannot. When you create the image of an Other who is less than human, fanatical and living in a perpetual state of violence (with the Other usually pitched as the instigator of that violence), then their dead children become divorced from the emotions of love and grieving, and are instead connected to apathy, distance and clinical pragmatism.
That’s a cruel media picture we should not only reject, but actively oppose.
Christian Christensen is a Professor of Journalism Studies in the Department of Media Studies at Stockholm University.