If a white man bleeds, it leads: this is the sad reality of news judgment

Yonden Lhatoo laments the double standards, in the media and among the public, when the world reacts to terrorist attacks differently – depending on who and where the victims are

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 4:12pm
UPDATED : Thursday, 21 July, 2016, 7:04pm

“If it bleeds, it leads.” It’s a cynical but effective mantra that we news editors often apply when deciding whether to put a story on the front page.

The trope is so deeply ingrained in the mainstream media’s psyche that reports of bloodshed, death and destruction will always hog the headlines. The only competitor is sex, which, as we all know, sells.

My years in journalism have made me a jaded signatory to this philosophy, but, as desensitised as I may have become, there’s one aspect to it that never ceases to bother me: the fact that it also matters who is bleeding – and that essentially boils down to skin colour – when you decide who should be leading the news.

I would even change that callous catchphrase to “if a white man bleeds, it leads” to reflect the disgraceful reality.

And you can only blame the media so much. After all, newspapers and television stations, in their eternal quest to capture as many “eyeballs” as possible, only reflect the reality of what drives people’s interest.

Let me be unambiguously blunt in stating the uncomfortable truth: the death of one white man or woman makes bigger news than the deaths of many non-whites; and any bloodshed in the Western hemisphere hogs more air time and print space than tragedies in Asia, the Middle East and Africa – in that descending order of importance.

The double standards have been there as far back as I can remember, but they’ve become unbearably obvious over the last couple of years, with quantum leaps in technology and unfettered access to social media.

That’s why when terrorists killed 130 people in Paris last year, the world was united in outrage and condemnation. There was a huge outpouring of sympathy on social media, complete with people decorating their Facebook profiles with the colours of the French flag.

Nobody gave a damn when Beirut was shattered by suicide bombings just the day before the Paris attacks. Does anyone know the colours of the Lebanese flag?

There’s also a whole new trend of “compassionate lighting” going on in tandem with terrorist attacks these days. From Australia to India and the US, cities around the world regularly shine lights on iconic landmarks in the flag colours of countries that suffer such atrocities. It’s a great show of solidarity with the victims – as long as they’re in the West, and preferably white.

It becomes the ultimate irony when, for example, people in India publicly mourn victims of senseless violence in France or Belgium while affording no such courtesy to their own countrymen being slaughtered in Kashmir.

Everyone was horrified by the terrorist attack in the French resort of Nice this month, when some deranged mass murderer drove a 19-tonne truck into a crowd of revellers. As people started flashing the French tricolour all over social media again, they hugged each other across the miles and spoke of how particularly heinous this atrocity was.

I agree. It was as bad as driving a tanker full of fuel into the heart of a crowded Baghdad market and detonating it to cause maximum pain and carnage. But I never heard US President Barack Obama calling something like that an “attack on all humanity”.

The people of Turkey will tell you how hurtful it is when the world shows solidarity with the victims of terrorism in one country, but doesn’t consider those in yours worth mourning. Maybe only full membership in the European Union will grant it the Western status and perception of pigmentation that justifies global sympathy when it’s attacked.

How ironic that at the end of the day we all bleed the same colour, whether we’re black, white or any of a dozen shades in between.

Yonden Lhatoo is a senior editor at the Post