What makes the news

19 Apr

As I’ve read about the deaths at the Boston Marathon and listened to my community play back what they’ve absorbed from the news, it has struck me that the first piece of information I gleaned, and the one I keep hearing, is that Martin Richard was only 8 years old.

Martin has been at the top of my internet searches and on the tips of my community’s tongues. Krystle Campbell and Lu Lingzi take a little more scrolling.

Let me be clear: by no means am I arguing that the senseless death of an 8 year old isn’t tragic. It is. And so are the senseless deaths of a 23 year old graduate student from China and a 29 year old local Massachusetts woman.

So I’ve been struck, not only by what makes someone’s death more noteworthy (or newsworthy), but how who they are shapes our responses to their loss.

Take for instance, the online comments on this Washington Post article “Boston University identifies third bombing victim as Lu Lingzi” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/3rd-victim-of-bombings-identified-as-lingzi-lu-graduate-student/2013/04/17/ce65e660-a776-11e2-b029-8fb7e977ef71_story.html):

I am so sad for this young woman and for her parents so far away in China. To think that they poured their life’s work and love into raising this daughter–their only child under Chinese government policy–that she was apparently so accomplished, and that they let her follow her academic dream half way around the world–to us, here in Boston–never to return. It’s just heartbreaking. Her poor mom and dad! (MaldenJen)

While this comment seems authentically sympathetic, the aside (“their only child under Chinese government policy”) takes an intentional detour. Within these dashes, MaldenJen leverages Lu’s death as an opportunity to critique policy. And unlike the invocation of gun control laws in the wake of the Newtown school shooting, I don’t see how Chinese population growth policy is relevant to the bombing of the Boston Marathon.

Yet that’s where MaldenJen  goes with Lu’s death. Notably and disturbingly, MaldenJen doesn’t mention the bomber(s) as the obvious and direct cause of the tragedy: it’s as if the Chinese government is really to blame for making this situation heartbreaking. (And if we’re to follow this logic, should Martin’s parents be less heartbroken over his death since they still have a daughter?)

Even more notable and disturbing to me are the comments that followed MaldenJen’s post:

The one-child policy doesn’t apply to government employees and the otherwise well-connected, so please save your energy on that score (spellmistress).

Government employees are indeed subject to the one child policy. They can lose their jobs by having a second one. The well connected is another matter of course, but they seem to have different rules in all societies. Malden made a very thoughtful comment, and jerks like you ought to get a life (luxembourg1).

Notice anything about these responses? Like the absence of any mention of Lu?

With one set of dashes, one woman who died at the marathon is obscured by our perspectives on, (mis)understandings of, and political slant on China.

Meanwhile, Martin’s death somehow remains more individual, more specific and more human, both in the press and in our responses. And thait’s not just because of a difference in age. It’s about everything we see when we read the names and see the pictures of those who have made the news, and the meaning and value we attach to what we see.

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