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Are all innocent victims equal?

By Sara Sidner, CNN
March 25, 2012 -- Updated 1139 GMT (1939 HKT)
Bodies of Afghan civilians allegedly shot by a rogue U.S. soldier are seen in the back of a truck.
Bodies of Afghan civilians allegedly shot by a rogue U.S. soldier are seen in the back of a truck.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Media focusing more on perpetrator than victims in Kandahar killings, says CNN's Sara Sidner
  • This follows a pattern in the media generally, says Sidner, an international journalist
  • Sidner: We as journalists need to work harder to paint pictures of these victims

Kabul, Afghanistan (CNN) -- Do these names mean anything to you?

Mohammad Dawood Abdullah

Khudaidad Mohmmad Jama

Nazar Mohammad Taj Mohammad

Payendo

Robina

Sahtarina Sultan Mohammad

Zuhra Abdul Hameed

Nazia Doost Mohammad

Mosooma Mohammad Wazir

Farida Mohammad Wazir

Palwasha Mohammad Wazir

Nabia Mohammad Wazir

Asmatullah Mohammad Wazir

Faizullah Mohammad Wazir

Esa Mohammad Mohammad Husain

Akhtar Mohammad Murad Ali

Sgt. Robert Bales charged with murder

Probably not.

Each and every one of them was deeply loved by someone and now they are dead.

These are the names of the men, women and children allegedly murdered by a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan's Panjwai District in Kandahar Province on March 11, according to Afghan officials. The U.S. military has now added one more name to that list but no one has revealed that victim's name so far.

When someone is killed, its natural to want to know who they were and how they died.

In this case, the how was quickly explained by witnesses, village elders, Afghan and NATO officials: They were shot dead. But looking across local, regional and international media for days after the massacre the full list of names and ages was nowhere to be found.

Even when some of the family members of the victims and village elders came to Kabul to the presidential palace to speak with President Karzai, few started by announcing their names but instead launched into accounts of what happened that night. And even they were at a loss to name every single victim at the time.

However, the minute it was discovered that a U.S. soldier was accused in the Panjwai case suddenly the fierce drive to find his name and details of his life became paramount to many journalists, all the while the vast majority of the victims still remained nameless.

It took far longer for us to find out who the dead were than it did for a hungry media to discover the name of the American soldier accused of killing them, to find his neighbors, family, and childhood friends.

The victims' identities seemed almost irrelevant to the investigation, and of far less interest than the legal defense strategy for Army Staff Sgt. Robert Bales.

Why have does the media seem to have forgotten these victims? Many reasons. None of them make it right, but they may help explain the failure.

For starters, security and communications -- or rather the lack of them -- didn't help the media's efforts. Traveling around Afghanistan is generally a dangerous proposition in Afghanistan. Even experienced journalists committed to investigating every detail found it difficult without putting themselves in serious danger.

In this case, even the government was at risk while investigating. An investigation team sent in by President Karzai including his brothers was fired on as they tried to mourn the dead and gather information in the villages of the Panjwai district.

Also there is no real "digital footprint" in villages where electricity and running water are luxuries, making communication extremely difficult.

Ages were often hard to ascertain, because, like many places in the world with poverty and high illiteracy rates, people do not know their birth dates.

But beyond the practicalities, there is something else at play here.

I have been traveling back-and-forth to developing nations my entire life and for years I have now lived in one, India. As a journalist, reader and citizen, it is my clear impression that victims of tragedies in developing nations are not given anywhere near the same coverage or attention as victims in developed nations by the international press.

And before I throw stones from a glass house, I realize that during my many years of gathering news and information in the United States, I am guilty too. I would rarely spend days trying to dig up the personal stories and the family tragedies behind disasters in places on the other side of the world -- the deadly bus crash in India, the devastating cyclone in Sri Lanka, the frightening earthquake in Iran.

After years reporting from locations all over the world, I see even more acutely the discrepancy in coverage of victims from developing nations compared to those in developed nations.

It is often explained away, even by those most effected by it. When I ask local journalists and friends in South Asia about the discrepancy, the reply often goes like this: "Well, life is cheap here." Or "If 50 people are killed in an accident here, it happens all the time, so it isn't that big of news. But if a couple of Americans die in a similar accident it is unusual."

It's a sense of resignation that makes me sad -- and mad.

Life is not cheap. It never was and never will be -- no matter where you live. I have witnessed the suffering of a mother in Oakland, California, whose child was killed by a bullet and the grieving of a mother in Sukur, Pakistan, whose child was swept away by a flood. There is no difference in the amount of pain they endure, or the tears they shed.

So in the interest of innocent victims everywhere, we as journalists need to work harder to find out who they were, to paint a picture of the lives they had and the people who grieve for them.

May they all rest in peace -- and be counted.

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March 23, 2012 -- Updated 0218 GMT (1018 HKT)
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March 19, 2012 -- Updated 1235 GMT (2035 HKT)
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March 20, 2012 -- Updated 1720 GMT (0120 HKT)
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March 20, 2012 -- Updated 1046 GMT (1846 HKT)
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March 20, 2012 -- Updated 0022 GMT (0822 HKT)
Shocked friends of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales say he was passionately committed to serving his country and cared deeply for others.
March 19, 2012 -- Updated 0148 GMT (0948 HKT)
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Video: CNN's Dan Simon visits the former U.S. home of Staff Sgt. Robert Bales to learn more about the accused shooter.
March 17, 2012 -- Updated 0044 GMT (0844 HKT)
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