Oct 23rd, 2017, 09:47 PM

The Law of Proximity

By Joachim Fernandez
Image Credit: Flickr/m01229
Last October there was a shooting in Las Vegas and a bombing in Somalia. You've surely heard of one, but why is it you may not have heard of the other?

On October 1, a gunman open fired with an automatic weapon on an outdoor concert in Las Vegas, killing 58 people. On October 14, a truck packed with hundreds of kilos of explosives detonated in the Somalian capital of Mogadishu. Over 350 people are believed to have died as a result of the detonation. Both of these events were tragedies in which human lives were lost, yet while the whole world has been made aware of the tragedy in Las Vegas, the same cannot be said for Mogadishu.

Image Credit: U.S. Department of State/Sam Pineda

In the journalism schools of France, there is a term coined la loi du proximité, the law of proximity. This law of journalistic practice dictates that the more distant a news story is, the less attention it deserves to be given. Here in Paris, there is an approximate distance of 8739 kilometers from Las Vegas and an approximate distance of 6622 kilometers from Mogadishu. Mogadishu is, in fact, closer to Paris then Las Vegas, yet when a small survey was run with Parisian residents, results showed that out of 20 respondents, only 4 knew about the bombing in Mogadishu while every respondent was informed on the shooting in Las Vegas.

The information these respondents possessed is all derived from the distribution of news media. How this media is distributed is obviously controlled on the basis of interests and principles, principles such as the law of proximity. It’s clear there’s been less international attention regarding the Mogadishu bombing then there has been for the Las Vegas shooting. One of the respondents themselves stated “I heard and read about the Las Vegas shooting every day for weeks after it happened, it was all over the news, impossible to miss. But this bombing in Mogadishu, I may have heard slight hints of it here and there but nothing close to what I was hearing about Vegas.”

If the distribution of news media is in fact dictated by the law of proximity, then why is it these respondents, representative of a greater Parisian whole, have clearly been presented far less news media on the Mogadishu bombing than on the Las Vegas shooting? Mogadishu is geographically closer to Paris then Las Vegas, it’s then evident that the law of proximity does not strictly pertain to geography, but to a far more complex comprehension of proximity altogether.

Image Credit: Wikimedia/Chicago Daily News

Other various sources have further articulated the actual principals behind the law of proximity. Obviously, geography is an important factor but, as we can see with the lack of media attention given to Mogadishu, it is not the only one. One extremely important factor would be the social proximity of a news story, meaning the social importance the story possesses for readers and the writer. This leads to the factor of affect, a story which may directly impact a readers life will be of greater importance than one which does not. Furthermore, there is the factor of time for a news story, how recent it a story is, the factor of notoriety, meaning how socially recognizable individuals or groups may be within a story, and the factor of commonality, how rare a type of news story may be.

With a greater understanding of the law of proximity, it becomes more obvious why the Las Vegas shooting garnered more media attention then the Mogadishu bombing. While Somalia is geographically closer to France then Las Vegas, there is a far greater divide in the cultural similarities. France and the U.S. share the fact that they are both developed, western cultures, something that Somalia is quite obviously not. While the Las Vegas shooting likely did not have any direct effect on the majority of French residents, it affected people from across the ocean that they are socially connected with. With shared mediums such as social media, what people are saying and posting in Vegas reaches the screens of French residents in a matter of seconds, its less likely that someone in Somalia is posting on Facebook or Twitter, and if they are then it's a lot less likely those posts will reach the same screens.

Image Credit: Wikimedia/Bartek Slosarczyk

Returning to the notion of commonality, it may seem that death and murder are a more likely occurrence in Somalia than in the U.S. but, while Somalia has had a notoriously violent past, it has since significantly stabilized. One needs to only look at the rate of death for every 1000 people in Somalia since the 1970’s the rate of death has decreased from above 20 people out of 1000 to approximately 11.6 in 2015, putting the death rate below European countries such as Croatia or even Russia.

What occurred in Mogadishu on October 14 was not an ordinary occurrence, it was, in fact, one of the most costly terror attacks in history, not only in Somalia but in the world. The Mogadishu bombing was just about as rare an occurrence as an occurrence can be, yet this fact was not enough to afford it media attention on par with the Las Vegas shooting. We can see that there are principles behind the distribution of media we are exposed to, flawed principles, The news stories you see and read now are controlled, this must be understood, because the news stories that you see and read now are not the only news stories around, and they very well may not be the most important.