By Eleani Purcell.
On 21 September a group of gunmen attacked the upscale Westgate Mall in Nairobi, Kenya. 72 people were killed and 200 were wounded.
Between 10 and 15 individuals associated with the Islamist extremist group Al Shabaab carried out the attack, which made headlines around the world.
But one figure involved in the siege gained more media attention than any other: Samantha Lewthwaite aka the “White Widow”.
Lewthwaite was born in Northern Ireland and grew up in England where she converted to Islam as a teenager. She subsequently married Germaine Lindsay, one of the men responsible for the 2005 London tube attacks.
As the Westgate Mall attack unfolded, reports emerged that Lewthwaite was suspected of being a “ringleader” in the siege and she quickly became the “most wanted woman in the world”.
Global media coverage of Lewthwaite was intense. Her background and alleged involvement with terrorist groups made as many headlines as the attack itself.
Yet none of the other gunmen involved with the Westgate Mall attack received far so much attention.
The reason why simply comes down to news value: Lewthwaite was British and female, her involvement was more noteworthy. It “shocked both media and audiences internationally” and therefore garnered more attention.
The same argument could be made for why Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev made the front page of newspapers while images of victims were relegated to pages 4 and 5. Tsarnaev was young, good looking and grew up in America which was enough to get him on the cover of Rolling Stone, while the names of the men responsible for the September 11 attacks remain largely forgotten in society’s collective memory.
It is not right that attacks carried out by homegrown, female or white terrorists gain more attention than other equally atrocious attacks. Nor is it right that acts of terrorism that take place in the US or England make headlines while the thousands of bomb blasts that have occurred each year in Iraq since 2003 have gone largely unreported even within the Middle East.
But nor is it surprising. News needs to be new and another bombing in a crowded Baghdad market isn’t new, at one point it was a twice daily occurrence.
Some make the argument that the Western media is being racist when it covers attacks in Western countries but not those in the Middle East or Africa, or individuals like the White Widow make headlines whereas most Australians probably couldn’t name any of the men responsible for the Bali Bombings.
It is worth remembering that many of the less dramatic attacks carried out by the IRA, particularly those that took place in Northern Ireland, received only limited coverage in England at the time. Over the course of twenty years bomb blasts became such a common occurrence that it took something more notable to make the top story of the nightly news. Each bomb blast had proximity, the element of violence, conflict and timeliness. But it wasn’t a new story.
Some media can most definitely be racist or western centric in the selection of the stories they choose to cover and how they cover them. But more often they are driven by more simplistic news values. And as any editor will tell you, if there isn’t something new, something noteworthy, then it’s not news.