U.S. media coverage of the Rwandan and Bosnian genocides

In November 2015, ISIS launched several terrorist attacks targeting Beirut and Paris only days apart, and killing 43 and 129, respectively. Although the media covered both attacks, the headlines and narratives skewed the severity of the events. On one hand, headlines on the Beirut attack reported: "Suicide Bombing Kills at least 37 in Hezbollah Stronghold of Southern Beirut." On the other hand, headlines on the Paris attacks stated "Paris Terror Attacks Leave Awful Realization: Another Massacre." Across the board, media outlets emphasized the Hezbollah stronghold in Beirut and the massacre in Paris.

As Nadine Ajaka comments on The Atlantic, affiliating the victims in the Beirut attacks with a Hezbollah stronghold makes ISIS' attacks in Lebanon seem "expected" and even "retaliatory." Meanwhile, news sources were providing live updates reporting detailed human rights violations in Paris, allowing for greater exposure of the terrorist attacks. Thus, it is obvious that in the Western media, "white victims are being humanized in a way Arab victims aren't."

Unfortunately, the recent terrorist attacks are not the only time when the Western media has covered two similar attacks on human rights under different lights. The Rwandan and Bosnian genocides were two of the worst human rights catastrophes in the late 20th century. Despite the large difference in the death toll between the two cases, around 800,000 in Rwanda and around 8,000 in Srebrenica, President Clinton emphasized the U.S.' interests in the Balkans over those in Africa. Although Rwanda's genocide death toll was 100 times larger than Bosnia's, I would expect that the U.S. media covered Bosnia's genocide more extensively.

To test this hypothesis, I used a large corpus of articles mentioning human rights from three leading U.S. newspapers: The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today. For the Rwandan case, I searched all articles in 1994 (the year of the Rwandan genocide) for articles containing both "genocide" and "Rwanda." This produced a sub-corpus of 305 articles. For the Bosnian case, I searched all articles in 1995 (the year of the Srebrenica genocide) for articles containing both "genocide" and "Bosnia." This search captured 443 articles.

Western media thus covered the Srebrenica genocide more extensively than the Rwandan genocide, at least when explicitly framing these episodes in human rights terms. (But see the earlier post on this blog about mentioning human rights in articles about genocide.). Although the death toll in Rwanda was 100 times greater than the one in Serbia, leading U.S. newspapers reported on the Serbian genocide 45% more.

These findings hint at a Western media bias towards white victims in an international context. This is not the first time that the media has treated tragedies in this way and it certainly will not be the last time. In the future, it is important to keep this coverage bias in mind, as we learn more about recent attacks.




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