We Get It, You Went to Paris

Coverage of Notre Dame Cathedral fire highlights inequalities

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Illustration by Manne Green and Lisa Bizuneh

When an arsonist burned three Black churches between March 26 and April 4 in the St. Landry Parish in Louisiana, most prominent news feeds were silent. But the world wasted no time mourning the loss of a historic French cathedral. 

The Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris caught fire on April 15. A computer glitch reportedly caused the fire, which razed the entire cathedral with the exception of its two iconic bell towers.

Following the fire, French President Emmanuel Macron announced he wanted the cathedral rebuilt within five years. In a matter of hours, thousands of donations poured in from all over the world to help the process. The total amount donated so far exceeds $1 billion. 

The collapse of the Notre Dame Cathedral is tragic. But the amount of money poured into its repair is disproportionate to the damage done. As historic as it may be, it is only one church. There is no reason why the accidental burning of one cathedral should warrant more media attention and financial support than the racially motivated burnings of three churches. 

Disparities in money and media attention reveal where society’s priorities lie.

Individuals and organizations have donated about $2 million to the three Black churches as of April 22. Before the Notre Dame Cathedral fire, less than $100,000 had been donated to the three churches — the additional $1.9 million rolled in after April 15.

The Notre Dame Cathedral raised over $1 billion in less time than it took to raise 0.2 percent of that amount for three Black churches that were intentionally set on fire in Louisiana.

The Black churches only received attention after a symbol of white European culture had been destroyed and people started acknowledging the inequitable coverage on social media.  The unbalanced news coverage of the fires is a product of pervasive racial bias that values French and European history over Black culture.  

The front page of the April 16 issue of The New York Times featured the Notre Dame Cathedral fire. It will also be the cover for the April 29 issue of The New Yorker

When major international newspapers feature an event on their front pages, donations are far more likely to flood in than when only a few domestic news outlets report on it. The media needs to pay attention to what it covers and what it leaves out. Otherwise we risk exacerbating inequality.

If you didn’t know about the Black church fires until after the Notre Dame fire, demand more from the media. News outlets are not doing their job if they don’t cover repeated instances of racially-charged arson.     

We all need to develop a critical eye for what we care about and what events we publicize. Speak out against unequal coverage of events. Make a conscious effort to elevate voices that otherwise go unheard.