Why do we care more about Detroit than Delhi?


There was a mass shooting yesterday. Quite a bizarre story. A young man who had fallen for his cousin’s wife, shot his cousin, and approached the (now) widow. When she spurned him, he shot her and the landlady who tried to intervene. He then drove to another suburb, killed the father and sister of his cousin’s wife, then shot himself. The story is here.

So, did you see this in our newspapers? No? Perhaps it was because the story was in suburban Delhi rather than Detroit? Because I am currently in Mumbai, it is major news in the Times of India (print edition) but I would be amazed if it was reported (other than perhaps as a novelty story) in the Australian press. Why?

More broadly, why do some stories ‘make it’ and become key news stories while other similar stories get no coverage?

Let’s first think of the ‘supply side’.

One reason could be video. If there had been video coverage of the killer (perhaps a siege) then there would have been more coverage because it would be a television story. But that cannot be all. After all, I am sure the Indian media can do video of ‘milling police and grieving relatives’ just as well as the US media.

Another may be ‘ease of supply’. Australian media outlets have close relations with media outlets in north America and western Europe. But the idea that this makes it cheaper or easier to run a story from the US seems inadequate. Our media has close relations with Asia as well – often via ownership (e.g. Murdoch is big in Asian satellite television).

A third could be language. But this makes no sense for India where the up-market press is as likely to be in English as Hindi and the accent is generally often to understand than English from most western European countries. Indeed, if anything, English speaking Indian news presenters tend to sound ‘British’ in accent.

So the reason is presumably on the ‘demand side’. Why do we, as media consumers, care more about a mass shooting in the US than one in India, elsewhere in Asia or in eastern Europe?

It could be that we ‘relate’ more to the US and western Europe than to Asia or other parts of the world. Ancestry could help explain this for western Europe. However, at least for the US, ability to relate must be through a broad view that ‘they are like us’ rather than ancestry. Perhaps it is through years of exposure to US sitcoms!

If this is the case, what does it mean for Australia being economically ‘closer’ to our northern neighbours in the ‘Asian Century’. It may be that our cultural norms change over time. As an increasing share of our population have Asian ancestry we may start to move from being US-centric to Asian-centric. But until then, the view from Asia will be that Australia doesn’t really give a hoot about its northern neighbors. And if we want to be viewed as more than a giant mine and farm in the eyes of Asian business, then this is a problem.

6 Responses to "Why do we care more about Detroit than Delhi?"
  1. What about the adage…when America sneezes Australia catches a cold. Could it be that our economic fortunes have for so long been tied to the USA, and before then the UK, and it follows that we have either been Anglo-centric and now Ameriphiles (if such a word exists!).

    I am sure the cultural connection exists with USA also, but I wonder which way th e arrows run.

    It will be interesting to see if our gaze shifts as the economic connections with the new super economies of India and China grows. At the moment our connection, although significant in economic terms, is quite remote from the daily lives of most Australians.

  2. Whilst I think this does genuinely reflect reader demand – especially since American stories are more “relatable” than Indian stories even for most Australians of Asian descent – iwe cannot easily assume that the press is responding to consumer demand once supply factors are accounted for. This can be assumed in most industries, but most industries don’t have a dysfunctional culture and near universal business failure.

    In fact, it’s hard to think of an industry that has adopted to and reflects Australian cultural diversity less than the media. Even if there was an equal demand for Detroit and Delhi stories, I doubt it would be recognised and met.

  3. This is a telling observation in a very significant conundrum for Australia. For another, go to any of the Eisteddfods around Victoria. Chinese students are walking away with the prizes for piano.
    We “native-born” seem to have a loose grip on what we regard as our cultural heritage from Europe.
    One new State Premier took an unduly utilitarian view of a literary event, so it was good to see the Queensland Literary Awards given new life. It could be a useful exercise to scan over the short-list to try and figure out how well Australians are linking into both our living past & our corporatised destiny.
    Keep on this one, Stephen, please.

  4. I think the cultural similarity is the key factor. Life in the US is not so different from here and so a terrible crime is more chilling. A murder-suicide in Mogadishu or another far away place that is (at least in the minds of the public) strange and lawless is not news and is less interesting because you can’t imagine yourself in that situation. An Australian can imagine themselves at the cinema at the mall but not at a market on the crowded streets of Delhi.

    Of course this represents a failure of empathy but the news are serving up what the public wants.

  5. The real problem isn’t included in this elegant list. To blame ‘us’ for not being interested in a story we haven’t seen is absurd. If we all searched the Times of India every day we’d know about it and be as concerned as we are about a mass killing anywhere else. But our main source of news is the Australian media. They are the gatekeepers, and they have a mental hierarchy of what is fit to print and what is not. Mass killing in the US: run it. Mass killing in India: forget it. This in spite of many Indians being Australians and many Australians being interested in India. (The same applies, of course, to Indian media coverage of Australia). When accused of this screening formula, the gatekeepers use the old press excuse: we give them the news, they don’t complain, so we know we’re giving them what they want. Now we all have other sources of information, the mainstream media are withering. But they are still not learning.

  6. Here’s Clay Shirky on the subject.
    With a newspaper or a 30 minute broadcast, scarcity of space or time is enough of an excuse to keep ignoring crimes like these. Homicide Watch reverses that logic. Inclusion is the default; one victim equals one new page. Unlike the traditional press, racial bias would take extra work. Their motto, unique in metro crime reporting, is this: “Mark every death. Remember every victim. Follow every case.” It’s hard to describe how radical such a sensible idea is.

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