With over two thousand dead and over a million displaced by Boko Haram attacks in Baga, Nigeria, the tragedy should have been international news. However, the attacks did not start getting any traction internationally until more than a week later. The tragedy that did get immediate international coverage and front page treatment in January was the terror attacks in France that left seventeen dead.
Internationally there are many factors why the coverage of Boko Haram has been so lacking. Rhuks Ako, of University of Hull in Yorkshire, UK–who studies environmental justice, minority rights, environmental human rights, and public participation law in Africa–explains, “A lot of the news is on social media but this is not enough to get the attention it deserves.” While the kidnapping of two hundred girls from Chibok in April 2014 inspired the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls and received international coverage, it’s far from the norm. Ako believes that story was easier for Western readers to digest, because it was presented “as a movement to free the girls but not to stem the tide of mindless attacks that have apparently continued unabated.”
Reader Interest and Media Resources Impact International Coverage
Getting readers to invest in international news is an ongoing concern in the United States. “The more we learn about the audience in the United States, the more we learn that they don’t follow international news,” said Kelly McBride, vice president of academic programs at the Poynter Institute. McBride explained, “Everyday news organizations ask themselves the question, what news is out there to cover and what news does our audience want us to cover? The sweet spot is the interaction of those two things.”
A news organization’s ability to cover international news is also greatly influenced by its size and resources. The choices made in the newsrooms of larger media and news organizations drastically affect what even the smallest local paper will cover. Even at the top tier of papers and networks, the viewing audience is ultimately the deciding factor. In America, McBride said, “The further you get from communities that look like Western middle class communities, the less likely the audience is to follow.” Where audience interest lacks, so does funding. The choice of covering the deaths of European journalists in France over villagers in Nigeria is overwhelmingly financial. Ako said, “In this contemporary world of fierce capitalism where everything is calculated in terms of monetary profit and loss, mainstream news stations would be more concerned about the ratings/viewer numbers than really breaking news.”
The Importance of Diversifying Newsrooms
Terrorism theorist and Northeastern University professor Max Abrahms has another take on audiences’ lack of concern for Nigeria and interest in France: racism. “In the case of Nigeria the perpetrators and victims are black. I think if the victims were white, there might be more attention from the West.” The victims of the first attack in France were also members of the press, which would make their deaths an attack on an institution of free speech and the profession of journalism.
The perpetrators of the attacks influence coverage as much as the victims. Boko Haram is not affiliated with terror groups like Al Qaeda, so the amount of genuine experts on the group are few. With a lack of pundits and scholars and a muted Nigerian military, there is a detrimental lack of sources on the group’s ideology. McBride adds that because of the ongoing nature of the attacks, news requires a more nuanced approach to coverage. “If you think about the Rwandan genocide it was months, even years before we had a full account of what happened.”
Solutions to the lack of coverage are sparse. American newsrooms are constantly evolving, and the ecosystem of our media is complicated. Many speculate that more diverse newsrooms would serve to create better international news, but editors are still at the mercy of their readers. Good reporting on Nigeria will happen only when reporters understand the complexities of Nigeria. Papers and networks must create a balance of finding talented journalists from abroad in addition to hiring local talent.
McBride says the American audience’s appetite for international news will only grow if it is actively cultivated. “Do great reporting! If we make it mediocre or boring, the audience will never grow.” There’s no magic elixir to cure racist attitudes in America. However, McBride says, the importance of media representation of oppressed groups in America is being taken more seriously. As newsrooms become increasingly diverse and more sensitive to interests of non-white, non-middle class Americans, news agencies large and small will bring initiatives that will make stories like the Nigerian massacre become news in America. McBride gives an example of an initiative by the American Society for News Editors to give a page of coverage to exploring the connection between American immigrant populations and their mother countries. While this inspires hope for the future, currently with scarce resources and expertise, it will be a long time until the violence of Boko Haram will be properly covered in the United States.