The news of recent days has been dominated by tragedy.
I speak most recognizably of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, which resulted in the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. Ambassador to Libya. In the following days, Americans mourned the loss of our brethren and reeled from evidence that out in the world there are still people angry enough, with enough hatred, to want Americans dead. The outpouring of sympathy from around the world reaffirmed that despite the actions of extremists, most people are good people. Discussions and considerations of the foreign policy implications of these events and the response of foreign publics have since become a major focus of public diplomacy and international affairs experts.
The same day as the attacks in Libya, more than 300 people died in factory fires that broke out in a shoe factory in Lahore and in a garment factory in Karachi, Pakistan. They barely made the news. Granted, the implications of factory fires are directed more domestic labor regulations than foreign policy, but there are significant implications for public diplomacy initiatives around the world as well.
Public communications scholarship would say that this disparity is a result of how the media’s agenda is set and how media set agendas. Literature suggests that agendas are set two ways: an authority (e.g. government) will tell the media what is news who then transmits the agenda to the public. The second way is when the public identifies important issues that are then reported by the media which sets the agenda for authorities. This, of course, does not necessarily sway opinion on issues, but it does reflect and have an impact on the salience of an issue. So when the news chooses to focus specifically on the loss of those killed in Libya but dismisses the deaths of more than three hundred people in Pakistan, an agenda has been set and the importance of an issue decided.
I argue though that this is a mistake. It is true that the immediate impact of the attacks in Libya may be greater than the tragedies in Pakistan; however, the dismissal of the tragic deaths in Pakistan reflects the shortsightedness of western media.
There is a growing working class worldwide. And though their influence is limited now, it will grow. Influencing cultural norms and communicating values is neither a simple process nor a short term goal. And there is no better time than now for public diplomacy initiatives to begin. We have an opportunity to communicate to a significant audience that we care about every person in the world. The idea of equality is not just lip service.
Views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organization, agency, or department.