- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2006

Dead Americans

It is axiomatic in U.S. journalism that the violent deaths of Americans overseas are more newsworthy than those of anyone else.

When we hear about a plane crash or other violent event on the other side of the world, two questions pop into our minds almost simultaneously: “How many were killed?” and “How many of them were Americans?”

That may sound crudely nationalistic and self-centered, but Americans are by no means unique. When I was starting my career in Canada, we asked exactly the same questions about Canadian deaths abroad. And when I ask foreign journalists visiting Washington whether they do the same thing, they invariably nod and say, “Yes.”

The reason, I think, is that any tragedy seems more compelling, more poignant, if newspaper readers can identify with the victims. And readers everywhere identify more closely with people from their own countries.

The principle holds true beyond the national level; readers identify more closely still with victims from their own states, cities and communities. That’s why the next question a journalist asks after “How many Americans?” is, “Was there anybody local?”

With that in mind, I was fascinated to note in The Washington Times last Sunday that a story about a helicopter crash that killed 10 American soldiers in Afghanistan had been placed at the top of the World page, while a story about four British soldiers and four Iraqis killed in a helicopter crash in southern Iraq was the lead story on the front page.

I had not been at work on Saturday when the decisions were made, but it was easy enough in reading the two stories to figure out the logic. There were three main factors that, taken together, easily trumped the tendency to focus on American casualties.

Welcome wearing thin

First, the British helicopter appeared to have been shot down by a missile, whereas there was no evidence of hostile action in the American crash. A shoot-down is almost always more compelling than an accident because it is willful. That tells us something about the people who did it, and suggests it is likely to happen again.

The second, and perhaps more important factor, was what happened after the helicopters crashed. The American chopper came down in a remote, rugged area and rescue teams had not yet reached the site. But the British aircraft came down in the city of Basra, killing four individuals on the ground.

That is when things got really interesting: Crowds of gleeful youths raced out to surround the site and began throwing stones and firebombs at the British rescue crews when they arrived.

We have reported scenes like these before over the past three years, but mainly from strongholds of the Sunni-led insurgency such as Fallujah and Ramadi, where resentment against the coalition presence in Iraq has been the strongest.

This was perhaps the first time we have seen such jubilation at the deaths of coalition troops in an area populated by the very Shi’ites who were most viciously oppressed by Saddam Hussein and who were most welcoming of the U.S.-led invasion forces in the spring of 2003.

That raised important questions about how much longer the U.S. and other coalition troops will be able to operate effectively in Iraq.

The third factor making the British crash more newsworthy than the American one was the difference in the two countries. There simply is far higher interest in anything that happens in Iraq than what happens in Afghanistan.

This is partly because the outcome in Afghanistan was settled years ago while the outcome in Iraq remains in doubt. And it is partly because the U.S. public was united about the need to fight in Afghanistan but divided over the war in Iraq. Partisans on both sides of the Iraq argument today seize on any development that seems to offer ammunition for their side.

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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