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The Colors of Tragedy: Paris and the Media

As Paris trembles in the face of a horrific attack Friday, so does Beirut after twin bombings Thursday and so does Palestine everyday. But only for France has the Sydney Opera House changed its colors, and only for France – in a repeat of the Hebdo incident reactions – have Western presidents come out in horror and the global private media set up live updates, slide-shows, and video pages.

The media’s hierarchy of tragedy reflects and perpetuates a political hierarchy in which some lives supposedly matter more. Further, by selectively using tragedy, sensationalizing it for click kudos and therefore trivializing it, even the reported deaths fall silent because they are not really understood.

The media hastily documents hell. It either broadcasts the loss and sufferings of locals for the Western viewer’s voyeuristic gratification without much intention to comprehend the back story – as was the case with the Nepal earthquake – or it personalizes the Paris victims, covering the violence time-line in minute detail but managing to perpetuate ignorance despite that.

The media doesn’t just affect what readers know, but how they think and what they care about. It is indicative that the media has not covered the four years of turning Syria to rubble, in this detailed way. And that it has forgotten about Nepal now that the best headlines are over and rebuilding and structural analysis are apparently too hard to care about. And that the refugees only become media visible when they step foot, it they make it, on first world lands. The media could play a role in critically understanding the underlying social and economic structures behind tragedies, but in fact, because of who owns it and its profit motive, it won’t. Not just about sales, the media is a force of power playing for a side.

The package of news the media presents – the tragedies it plays out and the ones it ignores reinforces an anguishing social inequality. As any child knows, it matters who and what gets attention. The tragedy of poverty and mass social exclusion is downplayed by the media while these plane crashes and shootings take center stage. And its not that they shouldn’t, but rather that unfortunately, the biggest tragedies are all day everyday, they are long term, routine, they have a cause, but they are the wrong people and lack the fun headlines, and so they are censored through a general, lasting, silence. And that means they are normalized and accepted.

The downplayed tragedies

The unrecognized mass murder of millions each year to preventable diseases.

The quiet stampede of unseen underpaid overtired workers

The mellowing of firebrains into mundane minds, stone skin expressions, because higher education is so much more expensive than television and phones. Creativity, if it survives, is sold to the highest bidder.

The limiting of sexuality, gender, and being. That is, the persecution of diversity and the systematic production of loneliness.

The efficient poisoning of planet, life turned oilsmell and even the thunder fed up.

The impunity of police to kill and the impunity of countries to bomb.

In school, history is taught as a series of events, one after another, as incidents and individual heroes and dates, rather than as a process. For the media too today, Paris is a series of events, not a complex issue. If there is action to be taken, it will be simplistic – punish the enemy, allow that enemy to become a people, ignore context, questions, consequences. The racism that is already overflowing on social networks after Paris is fought by causal analysis – currently completely lacking in most media coverage. Who makes terrorists? What causes such desperation? What are the forces and powers involved? What about the violence of invasion, marginalization of whole peoples, does that come into this? Why is some violence on some types of people accepted, and on others it isn’t? Isn’t that itself a gut-wrenching tragedy?

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Tamara Pearson is a long time journalist based in Latin America, and author of The Butterfly Prison. Her writings can be found at her blog.

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