Before the murders of James Foley and Steven Sotloff, ISIS had slaughtered thousands of people. But it was the public and brutal killing of “local” journalists—and the coverage these acts received in the U.S. by fellow reporters—that seems to have turned U.S. public opinion and the Obama administration dramatically in favor of the current military campaign against ISIS in Syria and Iraq.
This kind of focus on local victims was clearly visible in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, when The New York Times published informal but detailed obituaries for more than 2,500 of those killed. The amount of coverage devoted to individual lives was extremely unusual for a mass-casualty event with a death toll close to 3,000. “This was certainly a traumatic event for the country, but for The Times, it was really also a local reporting event,” Lule explains. “It’s harder to say whether they would have done something like this if the event had happened in San Francisco or Los Angeles.”
But what happens when disaster, natural or otherwise, strikes overseas, as it did repeatedly this summer? How does the U.S. media prioritize the rest of the world? William C. Adams, professor of public policy and public administration at George Washington University, attempted to answer this question in a 1986 study of news coverage of 35 natural disasters between January 1972 and June 1985 that each took at least 300 lives, including cyclones, typhoons, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Tallying the minutes major television networks (NBC, ABC, and CBS) devoted to each, he found that the severity of the disaster did not by itself predict the amount of coverage an incident received—more deaths did not necessarily translate to more airtime. For example, among earthquakes occurring in six countries in 1976, he wrote: “Guatemala experienced one of the worst earthquakes in this century in the Western hemisphere,” with the official death toll later put at 4,000. “Yet, proportionate to the number of victims, it received one-third of the coverage given the Italian earthquake” that killed nearly 1,000 people that year.
Adams found that other than the death toll, two factors mattered most in predicting how much coverage an international disaster received on U.S. television: the event’s geographic proximity to the U.S., and the number of U.S. tourists who visited the country in which the disaster took place. This latter factor, explains Robert Lichter, director of the Center for Media and Public Affairs at George Mason University, is a measure of a country’s “cultural proximity” or interest for American news consumers.
Adams’s research dealt with mass-casualty natural disasters; wars and attacks are subject to different calculations in the media. “The possibility that someone might have wanted ... to kill people directs greater attention to those who have specifically been targeted,” says Christine Muller, an American studies lecturer at Yale University who researches how popular culture generates meaning in the wake of extreme events. According to Mardi Horowitz, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco, many people experience a heightened level of distress when they see other human beings acting as predators.