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Should We Report Deaths of Civilians in Iraq?
Bert Archer: Global death reporting may be too much for our sympathy glands

Image: Flickr

I was standing on a subway platform Thursday reading the CP24 news blips. Three killed in Iraq, one read. The next one was about five being killed somewhere else in Iraq. Though these blips are an extreme version of the numerophiliac problems with broadcast news, they’re fundamentally the same as the rest of it. No context, few details. Just numbers. I wondered, as I noticed myself being bored with both blips, whether reporting this sort of news does more harm than good.

There’s violence in Iraq, and Afghanistan, and the Congo and any number of other spots around the globe. People are dying there, the result of gunshots and explosions. It’s horrible. But each individual occurrence is, to me, standing on the southbound platform of Bloor subway station, meaningless. And reporting it does nothing but temporarily remind me that people continue to die.

You could say that’s valuable, a weapon against complacency. At least it draws my eyes away from the poster for the latest John Cusack movie, or that ad for pants. It may even be a slight motivation to write my MP to demand a hasty resolution to the conflict in question.

But we don’t need reminders like this. We know, in the same spot of the backs of our heads to which we instantly flick these blips, that these this is going on. The reminders we need are of the actual developments. This faction has met with that faction, this overture was rejected, that diplomat sent home, this village changed hands. But three people dead? Though it’s of inestimable meaning to friends and relatives, and of considerable consequence to people in the country, all the transmission of the fact does for us is inure us just a little bit more to all the everything we can’t do anything about everywhere. It hardens us, builds up a callous on a part of us that should be tender, the part that cares when someone dies.

But that tender or formerly tender spot in us wasn’t made to handle death on a global scale. It balks, it toughens and ultimately, it deflects. The problem is, as far as I can tell, we’ve only got one of these spots. I picture it like an eardrum, a meniscus of tissue finely tuned to opportunities for sympathy and empathy, and it’s the same one we use for that shooting in Markham, or the van crash at Dundas and Royal York.

We live in a big city, a city in which violent death is not uncommon, and we already have certain little tough spots on those sympathy drums of ours. Some of us will care slightly less about a shooting at Jane and Finch, or one that involves two or more young black men, because these sorts of deaths seem more common. There’s probably racist elements in that, but it’s not just straight-ahead bigotry. Numbers and frequency also play a role. Things that happen more often, or even that seem to, have a tendency to shock us less into caring.

Toronto’s annual murder rate hovers steadily around 50, give or take about 10. This probably does a lot to create our baseline reaction to violent death.

I was in Jamaica recently, and had a chat with the Minister of Tourism. He was quite chuffed that his country had reduced the murder rate in 2011 by 40 per cent over the previous year. I asked him what the new, lower number was. It was more than 4, 000. With more than 10 murders a day in this nation with roughly the same population as Toronto’s, there has to be extra news value, something especially gruesome or tragic or otherwise surprising for it to be covered by the Jamaican press. It breaks the sense of community into smaller and smaller bits. If it’s a family member, a cousin, a friend, a friend of a friend, or a co-worker, the death will resonate. In Toronto, that community is still city-wide. Every murder’s still news, every one gets talked about, just like every Canadian soldier’s death still makes the national news, often the front page, simply because it is still news, and not the common occurrence it is even in the States.

It’s good that violent, intentional deaths still hit us where we live. There are any number of axioms about the measure of a civilization: how it treats its weakest members, for instance. I’d say another decent one is how much murder matters, how deeply death is felt. It’s a measure with an inverse relationship to how much window dressing a death needs — how young, how blonde, how promising, how motherly, how lurid the circumstances — to make us care.

I’m not a big fan of the Tori Stafford story for just this reason. The excruciating details on this, and every other DiManno vs. Blatchford bloodfest, raises the bar on what it takes to make us care, just as much as those CP24 blips lower it.


Bert Archer writes about media and real estate for Toronto Standard. Follow him on Twitter:@bertarcher.

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