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How The Local Angle Is Killing Us

Are far-off tragedies only newsworthy when Australians are involved?

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“One hundred people were killed in an explosion in Lebanon earlier today. Two Australians are among the dead.”

No doubt you or someone on your social media network has bristled when reports such as these turn up on the news. The implied racism of focusing on the Australians—who, though not explicitly white and affluent, are statistically likely to be so—angers people. Why are we focusing on, in this particular hypothetical, a mere two percent of the victim pool?


It’s natural to assume the worst of news. Inundated with partisan press, dying newspapers, a 24-hour news cycle of neon headlines, celebrity gossip, listicles and clickbait, it feels like this onslaught of information has left us in the most ignorant of times. Whether this is actually the case or not is irrelevant when talking about our perceptions. The primary thing we believe the news informs is our distrust of news.

So it feels pertinent to criticise the 6pm commercial news reporter when they focus on the plight of the Australians, myopically disregarding the bigger picture.

The problem with this is that it ignores what news has always been. From its very beginning, news has carried with it this very important caveat: yes, but how does it affect you?

Before Gutenberg’s printing press, news was delivered via town criers and government bulletins. These were, necessarily, local issues: new laws or dangers that would affect you directly. Long before someone figured out the rhyme, “…you can use”, the whole point of news was that you could, in fact, use it.

This is problematic for two reasons. One is our pathological need to “get back to fundamentals”, which often translates as, “what did people in the past do? Those guys probably had it all right”. It’s why Americans often try to analyse the intentions of their “founding fathers”, attempting to interpret how someone in the 18th century suggests we live life in the 21st century. So let’s not assume that the pre-printing press society has the concept of news down from the get go.


The second problem—which is really just an extension of the first—is that we have a firm ideal in place of what news should be. It should be objective, free of bias, and resist relying on a point-of-view. How far you think this should be taken is a discussion for another time. (Personally, I’m willing to allow newsreaders the occasional vocal inflection, but it’s safe to say my ideal newsreader is Stephen Hawking.)

If the ideal of the objective news report is to either mention all nationalities of the victims or none, then we run into a problem. There is a genuine desire for local news. It’s only natural that many people would want to know of the issues that affect them directly, and a tragedy on the other side of the world is inherently less compelling than the idea that someone you may know could be involved.

And yet the local angle is killing us. When we focus solely on how a foreign tragedy affects Australians, we insulate ourselves to the world. The implicit message becomes that the real injustice is the problems of a far-off land involving our own citizens. That explosions across the Middle East or Africa are only newsworthy for having included one of our own.

It’s a privileged position to take, and only serves to insulate us against the horrors of the world. It’s an insidiously isolationist approach; harmless on the outside, but powering an elite sense of tribalism. If you’re after a real world example, look at how the asylum seekers debate has been framed: we are the real victims, we are the ones under attack from illegals and unmarked boats. The mindset of “How does it affect us?” is, in a very real way, what got us to this point.


This shouldn’t be interpreted a plea for us to not cover, say, the situation of Peter Greste, the Australian journalist currently on trial in Egypt on the charge of supporting terrorism. It is a plea that we pay more attention to what’s happening in Egypt when it doesn’t appear to be directly in our best interests.

That said we could probably afford more coverage of the Peter Grestle situation. At least edge it above the amount of coverage given to Schappelle Corby, the True Detective finale, and things Kyle Sandilands said to Lorde. In my defence, I’ve only written articles about two of those things.

When Australian news outlets report on the plight of a few Australians in the midst of a larger tragedy, it is not a suggestion that the Australians are more important. It is a not-unreasonable suggestion that the Australians are more important to us, as we are Australians watching Australian news. It is a totally normal response to the desire for the local angle.

But it’s this desire we need to combat. The more solipsistic we get about the tragedies in the world, the more we inoculate ourselves against the ongoing tragedies of the world. It’s time to focus on the global angle.

Follow Lee on Twitter: @leezachariah