This is why the Paris at­tacks have got­ten more news cov­er­age than other ter­ror­ist at­tacks

The Star (St. Lucia) - - INTERNATIONAL - By Brian J. Phillips

It seemed like the world stopped. News out­lets de­voted non­stop cov­er­age to the ter­ror­ist at­tack in Paris. Many peo­ple changed their Face­book or Twit­ter pro­file pic­tures to show sol­i­dar­ity with France.

Why this at­tack? Why didn’t the sui­cide bombs the day be­fore in Le­banon, or the slaugh­ter of more than 100 col­lege stu­dents in Kenya ear­lier this year, draw such an out­cry?

Some an­a­lysts ac­cuse Western me­dia of racism. Le­banese ob­servers sug­gested that per­haps Arab lives mat­tered less. There is, in­deed, prob­a­bly bias in the cov­er­age. Peo­ple are more likely to be con­cerned about vic­tims they can iden­tify with. Re­search tells us that U.S. me­dia out­lets are more likely to cover ter­ror­ist at­tacks with U.S. vic­tims. The news me­dia are more likely to cover dis­as­ters in wealth­ier coun­tries. And tragedies that are phys­i­cally closer to the United States are more likely to ap­pear in U.S. news.

But there is more to the story. What’s news? It’s im­por­tant to keep two things in mind about how the news me­dia sets its pri­or­i­ties. First, “news” is gen­er­ally con­sid­ered to be some­thing es­pe­cially un­usual. The jour­nal­ism tru­ism is that “dog bites man” is not a story, but “man bites dog” is. That’s not a judg­ment on whether dog bites mat­ter; it’s a judg­ment about what’s sur­pris­ing.

Sec­ond, news out­lets are in­flu­enced by their con­sumers. Hu­man beings are es­pe­cially in­ter­ested in events that might af­fect them per­son­ally. If the me­dia out­let’s read­ers or view­ers are likely to feel that an event has im­pli­ca­tions for them, that will be cov­ered as a more im­por­tant story than if the events are un­likely to touch the au­di­ence’s lives.

Given that, here are some of the rea­sons the Paris at­tacks drew such an over­whelm­ing amount of me­dia at­ten­tion (in­clud­ing this blog post).

1. France is an un­usual tar­get. One rea­son the at­tack drew so much in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion was that France doesn’t ex­pe­ri­ence nearly as much ter­ror­ism as coun­tries with com­pa­ra­ble re­cent at­tacks, such as Le­banon or Kenya. Last year, Le­banon had more than 200 ter­ror­ist at­tacks, killing 114 peo­ple, ac­cord­ing to the Global Ter­ror­ism Data­base. One such at­tack was a car bomb that killed four peo­ple, in­clud­ing a Hezbol­lah leader. Kenya was struck by ter­ror­ists more than 100 times in 2014, re­sult­ing in more than 300 deaths.

In France in 2014, how­ever, only one per­son died as a re­sult of ter­ror­ism.

For France, this year al­ready had been more vi­o­lent than last, given the at­tack on the of­fices of the satir­i­cal news­pa­per Char­lie Hebdo in Jan­uary. Nonethe­less, France in re­cent years has ex­pe­ri­enced much less ter­ror­ism than many other coun­tries.

2. Paris is a top global tourist des­ti­na­tion. The at­tack on Paris also shocked ob­servers around the world be­cause many have been there, or plan to visit. France is the most vis­ited coun­try in the world.

This creates an “it could hap­pen to me” fac­tor, and also sug­gests that ter­ror­ism could af­fect some­one we know. Ter­ror­ists, of course, seek out such tar­gets. At­tack­ing tourism hot spots is ex­cel­lent for draw­ing at­ten­tion to their cause. The eco­nomic con­se­quences for the tourism in­dus­try, un­for­tu­nately, can be sub­stan­tial.

Be­cause Paris is such a prom­i­nent travel des­ti­na­tion, peo­ple from many coun­tries have an in­ter­est in violence there, es­pe­cially when tourists and other for­eign­ers get killed. At least 25 for­eign­ers died in the Paris at­tacks.

3. Ran­dom civil­ians were tar­geted us­ing shock­ing tac­tics. The Paris at­tack also stands out for the tac­tics used by the per­pe­tra­tors. This at­tack played out over time in mul­ti­ple pub­lic lo­ca­tions. It also seemed to tar­get ev­ery­one, in­stead of a spe­cific group.

Sui­cide bombers struck a soc­cer sta­dium filled with thou­sands of peo­ple, in­clud­ing the pres­i­dent of France, but they only killed one per­son be­sides them­selves. Other ter­ror­ists at­tacked restau­rants, shoot­ing down peo­ple drink­ing or din­ing. The con­cert at­tack left dozens dead, with hun­dreds more trapped in­side the hall. Ob­servers around the world won­dered if and when the Paris po­lice would in­ter­vene.

Over­all, th­ese at­tacks were un­usu­ally ter­ri­fy­ing pre­cisely be­cause they did not tar­get a par­tic­u­lar class of peo­ple — such as only Chris­tians, univer­sity stu­dents, or gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials. They tar­geted any­one and ev­ery­one. A life lost in this man­ner is not “more tragic” than a life lost in a civil war. How­ever, it might be more news­wor­thy, be­cause it’s un­usual (see above).

4. Are we see­ing a new bat­tle­ground for the Is­lamic State? The Paris mas­sacre also is draw­ing in­ter­na­tional at­ten­tion be­cause it sug­gests a new out­ward turn for the Is­lamic State.

The Is­lamic State has mostly at­tacked in Syria and Iraq, with some at­tacks in neigh­bor­ing coun­tries, such as Le­banon. As a re­sult, some anal­y­sis has sug­gested that the Is­lamic State is less of a threat to the rest of the world than alQaeda. A ter­ror­ism ex­pert noted in April that while the Is­lamic State in­spired lone wolf at­tacks in the West, it had not fo­cused on or­ga­niz­ing at­tacks in the West.

Is­lamic State lead­ers “have not made a pri­or­ity of or­ga­niz­ing strikes on the West,” the New York Times stated just three months ago. How­ever, with the Paris at­tack, it ap­pears that the group is branch­ing out into Western coun­tries that rarely ex­pe­ri­ence ter­ror­ism.

The Is­lamic State lead­er­ship ap­par­ently di­rected the at­tack, ac­cord­ing to French of­fi­cials. That would set it apart from at­tacks that were only in­spired by the group, such as the few killings that have occurred in Western coun­tries in the past year.

The explosion of the Rus­sian plane in Si­nai, killing 224 peo­ple, could also be part of the new out­ward turn of the group — if the Is­lamic State bombed the plane, as ev­i­dence sug­gests and as the group has claimed. How­ever, the ac­tual bomb would have been placed on the plane in Egypt, where the Is­lamic State has al­ready been op­er­at­ing. Also, there is not a con­sen­sus, es­pe­cially among Rus­sian and Egyp­tian au­thor­i­ties, that the plane’s explosion was in­deed a ter­ror­ist at­tack.

In claim­ing credit for the Paris at­tack, the Is­lamic State promised more such at­tacks. Given that many for­eign fight­ers have al­ready left Syria, and now are through­out Europe, this rightly should put the con­ti­nent on edge.

This was a com­plex, co­or­di­nated at­tack. And that’s wor­ri­some.

If we are in­deed see­ing a change in Is­lamic State be­hav­ior in the West, from only in­spir­ing lone ac­tors to ap­par­ently di­rect­ing more com­plex at­tacks, it is a sub­stan­tial shift.

An undi­rected lone in­di­vid­ual try­ing to stab some peo­ple is one thing. An or­ches­trated at­tack on mul­ti­ple lo­ca­tions by com­bat veter­ans strapped with sui­cide bombs is an­other.

For such an at­tack, ter­ror­ist or­ga­ni­za­tions have to find ca­pa­ble and com­mit­ted foot sol­diers who can work with oth­ers, with­out the au­thor­i­ties catching on. Plan­ning and com­mu­ni­ca­tion among per­pe­tra­tors — with­out get­ting caught — is es­pe­cially chal­leng­ing in a state with ad­vanced sur­veil­lance ca­pa­bil­i­ties. One rea­son why we of­ten see lone-ac­tor at­tacks in high-ca­pa­bil­ity states is that or­ga­nized terror is dif­fi­cult to ac­com­plish in th­ese coun­tries. The re­al­iza­tion that the Is­lamic State is ap­par­ently will­ing and able to carry out com­plex, co­or­di­nated at­tacks in de­vel­oped coun­tries out­side of its home re­gion has Euro­pean se­cu­rity ser­vices wor­ried. Be­yond Europe, what other tar­gets might be next? This fur­ther adds to the global in­ter­est in the Paris at­tack.

The Paris at­tack shocked the world for many rea­sons. It’s true that ter­ror­ism in less-de­vel­oped coun­tries is worth our at­ten­tion as well. Crises, such as the Syr­ian civil war, de­serve much more me­dia cov­er­age and pol­icy fo­cus. But the Paris at­tack con­tin­ues to draw in­ter­est be­cause of the rel­a­tive rar­ity of ter­ror­ism in France, the fact that the coun­try re­ceives visi­tors from around the globe, the shock­ing na­ture of the at­tack, and the po­ten­tial im­pli­ca­tions for the Is­lamic State’s fu­ture plans.

Brian J. Phillips is as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional stud­ies

at Cen­tro de In­ves­ti­gación y Do­cen­cia Económi­cas (CIDE). His re­search on ter­ror­ism and violence has been pub­lished in

the Jour­nal of Pol­i­tics, the Jour­nal of Con­flict Res­o­lu­tion,

and In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies Quar­terly, among other jour­nals.

On Thurs­day France con­firmed the death of sus­pected Paris at­tack mas­ter­mind

Ab­del­hamid Abaaoud and his sui­cide bomber cousin.

Sara Syeda lights one of a group of can­dles spell­ing the word hu­man­ity on Nov. 14 dur­ing a can­dle­light vigil in sup­port of the vic­tims of the Paris at­tacks and Beirut bomb­ings at the Is­lamic Cen­ter of Amer­ica in Dear­born. Mich. (Steve Perez/Detroit News via AP)

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