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1 gorilla vs 1,000 refugees: 'The death of an animal is sad but the drowning of 1,000 people is sadder'

The gorilla’s death received extensive media coverage worldwide; the deaths of the 1000 migrants, much less so, writes a dismayed Julien Mercille.

Julien Mercille

LAST WEEK, A 450-pound male gorilla was shot dead in a Cincinnati zoo because a four-year-old boy entered its enclosure.

The gorilla approached him, started touching him and moving him around. All this was taking place in a small river in the gorilla’s enclosure.

What should have been done? Hope for the gorilla not to hurt the child? Shoot the animal with a tranquiliser? The security guards took the decision to kill it in order to protect the boy.

However, during that same week, another incident happened, in the Mediterranean sea: 1,000 migrants and refugees drowned and died.

They were attempting to cross into Europe, fleeing war and insecurity in the Middle East.

Migrant crisis Source: PA Wire/Press Association Images

The gorilla’s death received extensive media coverage worldwide; the deaths of the 1000 migrants, much less so.

Before I suggest reasons why this is the case, let’s review the facts.

The numbers

I examined the global media coverage of the two events over the last week to see how much attention was paid to each. Here are the results (I only considered the English- speaking press):

  • The death of the gorilla was covered by 1,600 newspaper articles.
  • The death of 1000 migrants was covered by 650 articles.

This means that the gorilla received about 2,500 times more attention than each migrant. In other words, if the media had been balanced, there should have been 1,600,000 articles about the migrants, not 650. And that’s if we assume that the life of a gorilla is as worthy as that of a human being.

Zoo Gorilla Child Hurt Source: John Minchillo

In the United States, someone even launched a petition asking for “Justice for Harambe” (that’s the gorilla’s name).

In a few days, it has gathered nearly half a million signatures.

The petition actually blames the boy’s parents for negligence, and calls for an investigation. It reads:

We the undersigned actively encourage an investigation of the child’s home environment in the interests of protecting the child and his siblings from further incidents of parental negligence that may result in serious bodily harm or even death.

The result is that we have detailed information about the ape, the boy’s parents, and the zoo, but nothing comparable about the migrants.

I’m sure many of you readers did discuss the killing of the gorilla with friends and family (I certainly did), but it’s less likely that you talked about the migrants.

For example, some of the issues that arose have included:

  • Was the gorilla threatening the boy?
  • How old was the gorilla?
  • Did it have a violent past?
  • What about the boy’s parents?
  • Is the fact that his dad dealt drugs in the past relevant?
  • Why was his dad not at the zoo, anyway?
  • What kind of injuries has the boy sustained?
  • Can we see a good video of the whole thing?

On the other hand, we know virtually nothing about the migrants.

Names? Origins? Parents? Favourite pets? Who cares.

Here are a few points to consider to understand the discrepancy in coverage.

First, it’s not because the gorilla’s death is more sensationalist. One-thousand deaths is much more sensationalist material.

Second, there are negative stereotypes against Arabs and Muslims, as exemplified by the rise of far-right movements and demagogues likes Donald Trump, UKIP and the Front National.

The demonisation of those groups means that they tend not to receive positive coverage of the struggles they face.

Third, the refugee crisis has been created to a large extent because of Europe’s unwillingness to accept more refugees.

We are a wealthy continent compared to the Middle East and could easily accommodate more refugees. But European authorities have refused to do so, hence the name “Fortress Europe” used by critics.

Fourth, a story about shooting a gorilla doesn’t challenge the corporate and political establishment, which the media is averse to, because news outlets themselves are part and parcel of this establishment.

Journalists can report every single detail about the gorilla’s death, and it will never affect the unequal power structure in the United States. Such stories with low information value therefore often make it in the pages of newspapers and television broadcasts.

Fifth, a lot of the criticism in the gorilla case has actually been directed at the young boy’s parents, as in the petition above. There seems to be an element of underlying racism here, since the parents are black.

One wonders if the same calls to investigate the family would have arisen if the family was white and middle-class?

In short, the death of a gorilla is sad, but the drowning of 1,000 migrants is sadder, and should be reported as such.

Julien Mercille is a lecturer at University College Dublin. You can follow him on Twitter @JulienMercille.

More from him: 

Read: The pink tax is just another cost of being a girl 

More: Atrocities you probably haven’t heard about through the media

Politics: ‘For me, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are virtually the same’

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