Paris, Beirut, and the Language Used to Describe Terrorism

Not all media coverage is created equal, and sometimes the difference is in a few words.

Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

The night ISIS struck Paris, Facebook notified me that my cousins, who were vacationing in France, had been marked safe—through a feature designed for natural disasters that the social network had for the first time activated in response to terrorism, as the violence in the French capital was unfolding. The notification came as a relief. But just a day earlier, I had refreshed my news feeds over and over again for news from Lebanon, where ISIS had orchestrated twin suicide bombings in Beirut. I have cousins there as well. And they too were safe. But I learned that by messaging them on WhatsApp, not from Facebook’s Safety Check.

It was a glimpse at the gulf in attention, in expressions of grief and condemnation, on display after the attacks in Beirut and Paris—a gap my colleague David Graham explored on Monday. Lebanon may share a border with Syria and be intimately acquainted with the conflict there, but it has enjoyed a relatively peaceful year and remains something of a model of religious pluralism in the Middle East. As in Paris, the attacks in Beirut were the deadliest in decades, committed by the same medieval perpetrators from outside. And yet major American and European media outlets did not treat the two incidents similarly, which in turn, I suspect, contributed to an environment in which terror in Paris spurred Facebook to action in a way bloodshed in Beirut didn’t.

As David Graham noted, this discrepancy in attention and compassion may result from a variety of factors, including tourism patterns or cultural familiarity. But it also has to do, in part, with the language journalists use to describe the carnage—language that involves consequential choices about what information to emphasize, what to leave in and leave out, and how to frame the news.

Consider the headlines that emerged after the two sets of terrorist attacks: In the case of Beirut, the phrase “Hezbollah stronghold”—a reference to the Lebanon-based Shiite Muslim militant group and political party—were ubiquitous in the English-language press. There was Slate: “Dozens Killed in Bombing Targeting Hezbollah Stronghold in Lebanon”; and NPR: “Suicide Bombing Kills At Least 37 In Hezbollah Stronghold Of Southern Beirut”; and France 24: “Deadly explosions rock Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut.” The Atlantic’s coverage of the attack makes clear early on that “the neighborhood is a stronghold of Hezbollah, the Shiite militant group,” while The Wall Street Journal calls that neighborhood, Bourj al-Barajneh, “an area that is a bastion for the Iran-backed Lebanese militia Hezbollah.” (Hezbollah has been fighting in Syria in support of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, whom ISIS, a Sunni Muslim extremist group, opposes.)

In contrast, headlines about the violence in Paris tended to reflect alarm and grief. Reuters declared “Disbelief, panic as militants cause carnage in Paris a second time,” while The New Yorker announced “Terror Strikes in Paris” and CNN called it a “massacre.” What the coverage prioritized was not the ethno-religious makeup of the area attacked, but the civilian nature of the scene.

The night was chilly but thick with excitement as the big match between France’s national soccer team and archrival Germany was underway at the national stadium in a northern suburb of Paris. President François Hollande watched with the crowd as the French players pushed the ball across midfield.

Then came the sharp, unmistakable crack of an explosion, overwhelming the roar of the crowd. A stunned moment passed. Players and spectators seemed confused, and eventually the awful realization swept through the stadium: Terror, for the second time this year, had struck Paris.

The lines above, from the opening of a New York Times story, are beautiful and expressive—the authors seem to have taken care to capture the human emotion amid the unforeseen horror, to humanize the victims. Tucked away near the bottom of the piece is a brief allusion to France’s military campaign against ISIS in Syria (granted, the article was published when it was still unclear whether ISIS was behind the attacks). But this kind of context about the broader conflict in which the attack took place dominated many articles about the Beirut bombings. Coverage of Beirut featured comparatively little detail regarding the bakery and mosque where the explosions occurred, or the victims, even though three were American residents. While Hezbollah does have a significant presence in Bourj al-Barajneh, the neighborhood boasts the diversity that characterizes much of Lebanon, and includes many Syrian refugees who are Sunni Muslims. Describing the area as a “Hezbollah stronghold” frames ISIS’s attack as retaliatory or even expected—just another episode in the confusing saga of warring Middle East factions. Paris elicited urgency: time-stamped updates of what happened when, hurried briefings on what we know or what we don’t know. Beirut, not so much.

Yes, the media covered both the Paris and Beirut attacks, as it covers most acts of terrorism. But it did not cover them in the same way. Not all coverage is created equal. When language skews narratives, and institutional giants like Facebook encourage flag filters in solidarity with one tragedy but not others, it’s difficult to make the argument that the media landscape we all stumble through is anything approaching equitable—or to avoid the impression that white victims are being humanized in a way Arab victims aren’t. It is through language that the press shapes political discourse, and it is through language that our biases are made manifest. It’s not enough to blame readers for, say, showing less interest in news from Beirut than from Paris. Readers don’t write headlines, though their perceived interests do shape them. Until stories are crafted with similar intentionality, claims of neutrality on the part of the media ring hollow.

The Lebanese doctor Elie Fares perhaps captured this frustration best in the widely shared blog post he published after the attacks in Paris. “When my people were blown to pieces on the streets of Beirut on November 12th, the headlines read: explosion in Hezbollah stronghold, as if delineating the political background of a heavily urban area somehow placed the terrorism in context,” he wrote. “When my people died, no country bothered to [light] up its landmarks in the colors of their flag. Even Facebook didn’t bother with making sure my people were marked safe, trivial as it may be. So here’s your Facebook safety check: we’ve, as of now, survived all of Beirut’s terrorist attacks.”