Counting fatalities: Why is China forgotten?

Reading Time:

One might expect that an article called Lives Fit for Print: Exposing Media Bias in Coverage of Terrorism would be a useful reminder about the things that are problematic with journalism.

Reporting, like other things we do, can be quite parochial. There may be no ill intent behind that, perhaps it is natural for people to be (usually) more interested in what happens to people who share some aspects of their identity.

But when you criticize the way newspapers choose which events to cover, try not using a chart which asserts that no fatalities occurred in China:

Source: The Nation

That's blatantly wrong, here is one report from a September 18, 2015 attack:

a group of knife-wielding suspects set upon security guards at the gate of the Sogan Colliery in Aksu (in Chinese, Akesu) prefecture’s Bay (Baicheng) county, before targeting the mine owner’s residence and a dormitory for workers.

The flow of information and official accounts after violent incidents are often delayed or restricted, so one would not expect the final number for China to be perfectly accurate:

“The damage of the attack was very severe—that is why we are controlling [the flow of] information about the incident so strictly, lest we frighten Han migrants in Aksu,” said the cadre, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Still, that "0" looks a lot like bias.

When China rebukes Western countries for double standards on terror[1], some people respond that “The Chinese government is paying a price for having lost credibility because for many years it has exaggerated, manufactured, or distorted claims of terrorist attacks, counter-terrorism operations and the nature of the threat that is present in Xinjiang." But that surely cannot be a reason to ignore the credible reports of violence that do exist.

The words of China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman from last month show that many in China feel disrespected[2] by the discrepancies in how violence is described:

“We cannot understand why terrorism, when taking place in other countries, is regarded as terrorism but ethnic and religious issues, when taking place in China. And we cannot understand why other countries’ counter-terrorism acts are justified, but China’s counter-terrorism actions are so-called repression of ethnic groups,” she said. “I think it’s ridiculous, the logic is ridiculous and is out of political prejudice and double standards. We cannot categorize terrorism as good or bad terrorism because terrorism is the enemy of the entire mankind.”

The Nation article concludes that "[i]nstitutions must do a better job of reporting about terrorism in non-Western countries, and they must do so with the same level of frequency and emotional depth they bring to coverage in Western countries." More international reporting would be good -- but the way to have a more balanced news diet is not to turn up the volume, intensify fears, or emphasize emotions more than facts.

The assumption behind article-counting exercises that more articles are always better is false. Just as random natural disasters should be reported, letting a deadly event completely dominate the news will only encourage consumers of the news to everestimate the objective probabilities associated with the given event.

We have all seen plenty of complaints on social media along the lines of "Why are you sad about Paris, but not about the larger attack in X??" Compared to the attention devoted to attacks in Western countries, violent acts (at times on a large scale) that occur in a developing country tend to receive less coverage[3], but that could partly be explained by people having an "empathy budget". It is also conceivable that "geography matters" in that readers and reporters view bloody events that happen "nearby" as more pressing. A typical reader might be better informed about the world if Nigeria appeared in news stories more often. A more modest goal might to acknowledge when attacks happen, even if they happen to occur in China.

  1. FT: "China’s government responded to the Paris terror attacks last Friday with condolences and stepped up security measures at home — but the country has also taken the opportunity to criticise the west for what it calls “double standards”." ↩︎

  2. The same WSJ article reports: "In an editorial following the Paris attacks, the state-run Global Times wrote, “So far the West has not recognized China as a victim of terrorism. Lately, Western opinion still does not accept the terrorist incidents in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region for what they are.”" ↩︎

  3. About the November attacks, the article says: "On the day of each respective attack, there were 392 articles online about the attack in Baghdad and 1,292 articles about the attack in Beirut. On the day of the Paris attack, there were over 21,000." ↩︎

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