Opinion: Paris to Beirut - the geography of caring

Opinion: Paris to Beirut - the geography of caring

I clearly remember the last suicide attack I covered. It was April this year in Erbil, northern Iraq, and I was working for Al Jazeera English.

We'd been visiting a school-turned-Syrian-refugee-camp, which happened to be down the road from the American consulate.

We drove off to grab some lunch, and five minutes later stopped at the sound of a loud blast. We turned around to watch a huge plume of smoke rise into the air. We kept driving. The last thing you want to do is hang around a blast site when there's the threat of a second bomb to kill those who run to help. I called our fixers, tried to gather as much information as possible, and called the newsroom – three dead, a dozen or so injured. Islamic State (IS) eventually claimed responsibility.

I was shocked at the time, and so were the people around me. You may think of Iraq as some constant and continuous entity – one big hotbed of terror and violence. In reality, the autonomous Kurdish region of northern Iraq is largely safe.

The last bomb attack there had been four months prior, and daily life in capital Erbil looks much like any other developing city. There are malls, traffic jams and body-building gyms (to which I tried to go and got turned away – but that's a whole other story).

Sure there are seriously dangerous parts of northern Iraq. Drive a few hours and you'll hit the frontlines, and be able to tune into IS' very own radio station beaming out from Mosul.

My point is the people of Ebril were unsettled and news networks covered it at the time. Al Jazeera, Al Arabiya, ABC Australia, NBC, Rudaw and CNN all filed pieces and humanised the stories. These were not faceless victims in some dusty Arab land. They were husbands, mothers, sisters – going to the bakery, walking to work, sitting outside a mechanic's garage waiting to pick up their car.

But unsurprisingly, for the most part, these stories didn't appear at the top of homepages, the top of bulletins, or on the front page of newspapers.

As the investigation to catch the culprits continued, the coverage tapered off – not because the news networks weren't open to doing it, but because few readers were interested.

Today we have a social media backlash from the coverage of Paris, compared to the coverage of the Beirut bombings two days earlier, or even the Garissa University attack in Kenya last year. We've also seen the news media fire back, explaining that networks did in fact cover Beirut, arguing it was the readers who ignored it.

We're taught in journalism school about the "geography of caring", that the closer you are to an event, the more you care about it.

I've certainly observed in my career that regardless of where I'm reporting from, people are always more affected by what happens in their cities, or their country. It's just the way it is. Here in New Zealand, even though France is one long plane ride away, we can understand going to watch a football game at Stade de France, or going out for dinner on a Friday night. It may be harder for us to understand what it's like to make the daily walk to get bread, or to spend an afternoon drinking sugary Iraqi tea waiting for the mechanic to finish with the car.

However, understanding one does not discount the other. We are able to feel and express empathy for the people of Paris, while also doing the same for the people of Baghdad or Beirut. Indeed, it's our duty as humans to see the humanness in all of us, regardless of location, religion or race.

I feel a deep responsibility as a broadcaster to tell stories in a way that helps viewers see and understand that sameness the world over. That's what led me overseas in the first place, and in a way, is what brought me home.

Here in New Zealand, we are quick to tuck ourselves away, safe in the knowledge that we’re thousands of kilometres from anywhere, unhurt by the terror shaking the rest of the world. And yes, it’s right to be grateful for the safe, paradise we get to call home. Many would risk their lives for the passports we have.

But those advantages mean there are fewer excuses not to be socially, emotionally and politically engaged. Because for most of us, its pure luck that we live where we do. That we were born into families who call Aotearoa home. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on our own problems here at home – of which there are many. But to realise our commonness in an ever-connected, increasingly hostile looking world – is to do our part in fighting terror with empathy.

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