If (like me) you think that it’s more important to making the world a better place that people pay attention to the right things (rather than, say, that they hold the right beliefs), then you have to be struck by the differential in media attention to two stories over the past week. The first is the efforts to resuce seven Russian sailors trapped in a submarine in the Pacific Ocean. They were rescued this morning with the help of U.S. and British military resuce teams.
The other is the ongoing drought and widespread starvation in Niger. Niger frequently has difficulty feeding its population, but this year inadequate rains have placed 3.6 million people in danger of starvation, including large numbers of children.
The Russian sub story was the top story on CNN and other major media outlets for the past three days. Niger made front page appearances in the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the LA Times late last week, along with stories on CNN, but quickly faded from view, being consigned to the more obscure ‘international’ pages of the newspapers
What I’d like to know is why stories like the Russian sub story (think of the little girl trapped in a Texas well in the 1980’s) get so much more of our attention than massive humanitarian crises like Niger. (Many international development experts note that often crises such as those in Sudan, Ethiopia, etc., receive attention in the Western media only after it’s very nearly too late.) I make two assumptions: The media’s decisions about how to allocate their time and space pretty well reflect the preferences of their audiences. I.e., the major media outlets understand their markets well enough to know which stories are likely to gain the biggest circulation or viewership. So the collective "we" really does care about the Russian sailors than about starving children in Niger.  By any objective measure, stories like Niger deserve much more attention and concern than stories like the Russian sub story. The number of people vulnerable to suffering and death is many times greater; the needs are no less urgent (the Russian sailors had less than a day’s oxygen to survive, but surely an equal number in Niger will die today without outside assistance, along with the next day, and the next, and the next …); and while suffocating from oxygen deprivation is a grisly death, so too is dying from malnutrition or any of the conditions associated with it.
So my question: Why do we pay more attention to the Russian sailors than to the situation in Niger? And is it possible (psychologically) that we might pay more attention to the more morally significant stories, or are we psychologically hard-wired not to?
Here are some possible explanations for this discrepancy in our moral attention. Notice that the explantions don’t turn on whether the statements they contain are true. For the purposes of explanining the perplexities of our moral attention, all we need is that the explantions be psychologically accurate. (I’m also not suggesting these explanations are exclusive; the true explanation would probably invoke several of these.)
(a) FAMILIARITY. We’re so accustomed to famine and humanitarian crises, especially in Africa, that the moral novelty has worn off. (Of course, there have been many stories similar to the Russian sub story, also, like people being trapped in mines, stranded by floods, etc., so why do these stories retain their novelty?)
(b) FUTILITY AND FATIGUE. We can do something now about the Russian sailors, but efforts to save people in Niger may not work, and there will just be another humanitarian crisis to address in a few months. It’s just too much to ask for our continuous moral attention to hunger and disease. (I don’t buy any of this, but it’s a possible explanation.)
(c) IT’S ABOUT US, NOT THEM. It’s just somehow more heroic and dashing to rescue sailors from the ocean than to save people from hunger. Sending a check to an aid agency or getting emergency aid measures approved by Congress, the UN, etc., is such a pedestrian and unglamorous way to help others. And the Russians used to be our enemies, so we’re being particularly magnanimous in coming to their aid.
(d) RECIPROCITY. Perhaps we’ll need nations like Russia to help our military personnel when they get into a tight situation in the future (or perhaps the Russians already have helped us in similar contexts), so we’re simply looking out for our interests. But it’s hard to conceive of a situation where American interests or the lives of Americans would depend on what anyone in Niger does.
(e) INNOCENCE AND RESPONSIBILITY. The Russian sailors were, as of yesterday, effectively helpless. Niger has problems securing an adequate food supply, but (maybe) their present situation could have been prevented, or could be alleviated, with smarter policies concerning agriculture, population growth, economic development, etc,
(f) THE UGLY POSSIBILITY. We’re subconscious racists. The Russians look like us, so their suffering and death resonate with us. The people of Niger don’t look like us, and so their suffering and death seem more remote.
So which explantion(s) carry the day? And what does that tell us about the possibilities for what can sustain our moral attention and concern?