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Is There A Hierarchy Of The Importance Of Death In The News Business?


Consider headlines we've heard in recent days. In a major cosmopolitan center, dozens of people of many ages and creeds simply living their daily lives were killed in attacks claimed by ISIS. That description fits Paris on Friday and also applies to Beirut the day before. As NPR's David Folkenflik reports, American news outlets face criticism that they slighted the Beirut bombings.

DAVID FOLKENFLIK, BYLINE: Near counts more than far, familiar more than different. Such is the indictment against the press, that it fails to treat similar tragedies with equal dignity. New York Times Beirut bureau chief Anne Barnard wrote about the outrage in that city.

ANNE BARNARD: I think people here had the sense that there's an impression that their lives don't matter as much or their lives are expected to be part of some kind of faraway chaotic region where you just would expect things like this to be happening.

FOLKENFLIK: She says Americans are mistaken to think the Lebanese capital is part of a Middle Eastern war zone.

BARNARD: Beirut is actually a sort of strange oasis in the middle of a region full of conflict. I live here with my kids. Most of our daily life feels quite normal.

FOLKENFLIK: Major news organizations, including The Times and NPR, actually did cover the bombings. But Barnard says Americans could be forgiven for having missed what happened in Beirut as coverage of Paris has all but blotted out the killings there.

ROY GUTMAN: In some ways, it's understandable. In some ways, it's outrageous.

FOLKENFLIK: That's Roy Gutman. He's been a foreign reporter and editor for decades, and he won a Pulitzer for exposing mass murders in the Balkans.

GUTMAN: Life is life. And people being killed are people being killed. And if they're being killed by the - in this case by the Islamic State or by some terrorist group, we should treat it as if it was at home because they could be us. And they may be us next.

FOLKENFLIK: Gutman is currently Middle East correspondent for McClatchy Newspapers. He notes Beirut is politically unstable and dominated by Hezbollah and therefore may be more mirage than oasis.

GUTMAN: I think the Paris of the Middle East is a moniker that Beirut enjoyed, you know, 30 years ago. But right now, it's on the edge of the volcano.

FOLKENFLIK: Take the civil war in Syria. Hundreds of thousands of people are estimated to have died in that conflict. American journalists have covered it intensely at times, at other times quite lightly - in no small part because of the great danger involved. That affects coverage too. I asked Bill Keller, is there a hierarchy of the importance of death in the news business? Keller's a former foreign reporter for The New York Times who rose to become its top editor.

BILL KELLER: Well, there is a hierarchy of news. It's a hierarchy of judgment, I guess. All deaths are equal to the victims and their families. But all deaths are not equal in the calculation of news value.

FOLKENFLIK: Keller is now editor in chief of The Marshall Project, which covers the criminal justice system. He says most Americans tend to be more familiar with Paris than the Middle East, more likely to have visited or have knowledge of that city. And that counts.

KELLER: Look, there are a number of factors that help you judge how much of an effort you're going to make, you know, what kind of resources you're going to devote to a story and what kind of play you're going to give it. A terrorist attack in a place where terrorist attacks are comparatively common is different from a terrorist attack in a place where you don't expect it.

FOLKENFLIK: The attacks in Paris have had near instant ramifications, taking over much of the rhetoric of the presidential primaries here and leading the French to bomb ISIS-held spots in Syria.

KELLER: There weren't those kind of consequences - political and policy consequences - from the bombing in Beirut.

FOLKENFLIK: News executives I spoke to cited one other variable, cruel but no less real. Had the Beirut bombings occurred during a dry spell for international news, that might have drawn far more coverage. David Folkenflik, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Folkenflik was described by Geraldo Rivera of Fox News as "a really weak-kneed, backstabbing, sweaty-palmed reporter." Others have been kinder. The Columbia Journalism Review, for example, once gave him a "laurel" for reporting that immediately led the U.S. military to institute safety measures for journalists in Baghdad.