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Rampage in Nice

In the algorithm of grief, how do we figure out the truck attack on holiday-makers in Nice?

We in the news trade have a formula of sorts to determine the “worth” of a story. We go by what is known in J-school as the “elements” of news. Significance: How important is this story, how many people will it affect? Prominence: How well-known or important are the people involved? Proximity: How near did an event occur to the location of the reader? Timing: How recently did it occur? Other elements that may add to or detract from the value of a story are: oddity, drama, or what is otherwise known as “human interest.”

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Another interpretation of the hierarchy of news values is the situation depicted by a well-known cartoon strip. A plane full of white politicians and rich business people crashes into a mountain. Of course, the story lands on the front pages and the prime newscasts of most newspapers and TV stations around the world. At about the same time, another plane, with the same number of passengers who are as a whole poor “ordinary” travelers, also crashes. Where does the story land in the media? Depending on where the passengers or airline originated, it could end up on the front page or in “foreign” news. But it’s doubtful if the tragedy would merit international or even regional coverage.

“Objectivity” may be a prime value among journalists, but we all know that a thousand things color the judgments made by reporters, desk people, editors, and even readers every day. And the judgments journalists render depends very much on who we are, what we value, and who or what we think is important.

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As another journalist said, tongue-in-cheek, at a media conference: “News is whatever interests an editor at a particular time.” If the editor of a paper is a stamp collector, chances are the sale of a rare stamp will merit front-page treatment.

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Which brings us back to Nice.

In previous weeks and months, there were several posts on social media commenting on the varying degrees of coverage of the sadly escalating number of “terrorist” attacks in different parts of the world. While there was almost blanket coverage of shootings, suicide bombings and attacks carried out in Europe and in the United States, many observed, similar rampages, with perhaps even more victims, carried out in the Middle East, Africa and Asia were largely ignored by international media.

Or, there may have been obligatory coverage, but the “tone” of the coverage and commentary—so difficult to measure by any metric—was so much more muted or perfunctory for incidents that took place in the developing world, or involving people of color.

There are those who will raise an eyebrow at the emotional reaction in the days after the Bastille Day truck attack. But one point we need to remember is that, aside from the locale of the scene of mayhem and murder, the victims were people of different races and faiths, including some Tunisian migrants to France, like the prime suspect who was found dead when the truck he was driving finally came to a stop.

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And human interest there was and is aplenty in Nice.

“There are a lot of crazy people in this world,” Madame Bourmault, who lives two minutes from the promenade or seaside walk where the attack took place, told The Guardian.

“What else can you say?” she added, recalling the early hours of the celebration when “in a fraction of a second, the music stopped and there was a lot of screaming. Everyone was running and no one was helping.”

By latest count, 84 people, including 10 children, were killed that Thursday night. A total of 202 people were injured, while 52 remain in critical care, including three or four children in “extremely critical condition.”

The most interesting, compelling and mystifying human interest story from the tragedy is that of the attacker, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who was born in Tunis but had lived in France for many years. Working as a chauffeur and delivery man, Lahouaiej-Bouhlel had had a history of making threats and of violence and petty theft, police in Nice said. In both instances when he was haled to court, the driver was handed suspended sentences.

But so far he has not been linked to terror organizations nor has there been “evidence of radicalization,” as was the case with other suspects involved in terrorist attacks. Many of them were migrants—or even residents—who seemed to have been drawn to radicalism, particularly the type espoused by the Islamic State, through the internet or during visits to their countries of origin.

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There is a strong possibility that Lahouaiej-Bouhlel was what law enforcers call a “lone wolf.” And it is frightening indeed that “crazy people,” or simply individuals with deep-seated personal resentments that they have projected onto the bigger society, can find ideological, cultural, or even religious justifications for their actions.

And the sad truth of the matter is that the media may have something to do with this development. Is it possible that the coverage we have given to mass attacks and massacres have not only fired up the imagination of unhinged individuals, but have also given them blueprints for bringing their deadly impulses to life?

In the wake of the rampage in Nice in the midst of fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day, it is difficult to remain immune to feelings of horror, anger, shock and grief at this story. How one man felt no compunction about ramming into a crowd of revelers, all of whom wanted nothing more than to gather by the seaside to celebrate a country’s independence, is a matter for reflection, and for remembering, now, more than ever, to live as if each day is your last.

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TAGS: attack, Bastille Day, France, Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, Nice, terrorism, truck attack
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