By Mark Hay
Jan 15, 2015
On January 3, Boko Haram, the Islamist group that has been terrorizing northern Nigeria since 2009, razed and massacred the town of Baga and other villages on the country's border with Chad. The ongoing occupation of the town and ravaging of the countryside makes it hard to get reliable numbers, but it appears that as many as 2,000 were killed, up to 30,000 were displaced, and some 1,000 Baga citizens who fled the violence by swimming into Lake Chad are now starving on Kangala Island. It was the single most audacious, horrific, and massive attack carried out by the terrorist group—and one that cemented their control over a block of territory more than twice the size of Vermont.
Yet this unprecedented atrocity, part of an ongoing and truly concerning conflict, received almost no immediate media attention. Then on January 7, when 17 people were killed in Paris, 12 of them satirists from Charlie Hebdo magazine, the media erupted (and continues to erupt) with heartfelt outrage and constant coverage. Responding to the event, citizens and 40 world leaders organized a 3.7-million-man march in support of the victims and the press freedoms symbolically assailed in the attack.
While both attacks are unmitigated atrocities, worthy of condemnation and commemoration, the seemingly inverted disparity in coverage has not gone unnoticed. Some, like Simon Allison writing in South Africa’s Daily Maverick, have taken the imbalance as a sign that the media and the world do not mourn deaths in Africa the way they do those in the West. While gut instinct suggests Allison is right, situations like these are also worth examining as media phenomena—and while racism and Western views of Africa are certainly part of this equation, the debacle clearly points towards serious failures in editorial judgment and a systematic problem with the way we choose which stories to prioritize as writers and as readers alike.
Some try to brush the events at Baga aside, noting that the murky death toll may be as low as 200. Others may think that the uneven coverage was not so bad, especiallyconsidering the relative access journalists had to the two areas. But even 200 human beings killed, as part of an ongoing and geopolitically important terror campaign is worthy of far more note than Baga received. And while it’s true that the lack of communications and security in Baga meant vastly less reporters than in Paris, the media’s inattention goes beyond that simple explanation. One media analyst has drawn up clear and depressing graphs of the relative blind eye turned towards Baga in both the global and Nigerian media alike.
Parents of missing Chibok girls mourn. Photo courtesy of Voice of America
But the media doesn’t always turn a blind eye to African suffering. The international press spent a good amount of time and ink covering Boko Haram’s terrifying abduction of nearly 300 schoolgirls in April 2014, a blitz of attention that included statements from the White House, celebrity commentary, and the ever-sharable #bringbackourgirls hashtag. Not that it made much difference; nine months later, almost all of these girls are still missing, married off or possibly enslaved by the terror group, with no sign of any particular plan of action to get them back. And the West wasn’t alone in its failure to devote time to Baga. Many commentators have noticed that African leaders like Gabon’s Ali Bongo Ondimba and Mali’s Ibrahim Boubacar Keita attended the solidarity march in Paris, but they (and even Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan at his Thursday reelection rally) have remained eerily silent on Baga.
The world didn’t turn away from Baga solely because of where it was or who lived there. And it didn’t turn a blind eye only because it was hard to reach and report from. It didn’t even favor the Paris attacks because they involved journalists—writers regularly ignore the deaths of journalists, even when frequent and numerous, in other parts of the world. Instead it seems like we passed on covering Baga in any great depth because, while it was a worthy story, to many in media it wasn’t a “gripping tale.” But why?
Writers like to write and readers like to read about dramatic changes. Yet evenextreme violence in Nigeria has become routine. Papers privilege stories with a clear narrative, understandable framework, and distinct characters that readers can hook onto—like the grieving parents of the nearly 300 kidnapped girls, who were discrete, unambiguous victims whose stories tied into the quest for female empowerment and its cosmic conflict with religious conservatism. Yet to Westerners, the events at Baga seem distant, chaotic, and devoid of familiar faces. For many in the press, that murky and unresolved chaos was hard to pin down factually, or build a narrative around conceptually. And as for African leaders, it was deemed undesirable to draw attention to their own regional, military, and government failures, and so they also participated in muting these tragic events, restricting press access, and downplaying death tolls.
This idea—that we ignored Baga and the loss of life there because we couldn’t make a good story out of it—doesn’t in any way take race out of the way editors and readers make their editorial choices, or how they decide what exactly makes for a compelling piece. This element becomes especially poignant in a year in which all over the world, and especially in the United States, it has been infuriatingly necessary to articulate to the public that black lives matter. And a longstanding and systemic disengagement with Africa, stemming at least in part from histories of abuse and degradation, feeds into what makes a story like Baga so hard to report, construct, and consume—perhaps as much as the chaos and ambiguity of the situation and remoteness of the location itself does.
The elevation of Paris over Baga is itself a story: one about the priorities of the press, about the subservience of an important story to a gripping narrative. And in the end, the press knew how to conceive of and respond to Paris because we think we understand Paris. Accordingly, we wind up elevating the narrative (a neat, compact tale of civilizational clash) over necessary substance (the anonymous, yet massive, tragic, and significant massacre of thousands). That is part—beyond our general disengagement with Africa—of what leads us to care about life in the continent so selectively and sporadically, raging over the kidnapped girls from Chibok but barely making mention of the lost lives in Baga.
It may be human that we might do this as individuals, finding it easier to relate to a well-crafted tale or incident than a long, complicated conflict with details that may seem arcane to outsiders. Yet the press’s failure to take those stories that truly matter, and concisely demystify, contextualize, and present them to the public is a monumental failure.