Mainstream Media Reflects American Ignorance


Andrea Vallone
Staff Writer

In the last week, mainstream media in the United States has erupted in a frenzy over the nearly 300 schoolgirls kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Nigeria. Unfortunately for the girls, the media was about a month late.

For those of you who still aren’t privy to the ongoing tragedy: on April 14, 276 young girls from the ages of 15 to 18 were kidnapped from their boarding school by the Nigerian militant Islamist group, Boko Haram–which in Hausa roughly translates to “Western education is forbidden.” As of late, it has been recorded that the girls are being sold into marriage to the militants for $12. On May 4, Boko Haram released a video in which its leader, Abubakar Shekau stated “Western education should end. Girls, you should go and get married.” He added, “I will sell them in the market, by Allah.”

Fridda Ghitis of CNN wrote, “If it had happened anywhere else, this would be the world’s biggest story.” And she has a point. The Tyndall Report, which analyzes TV news, stated on May 6 that “it is a general rule that sub-Saharan stories–especially those in which Americans are not involved–are under-covered by the mainstream national [U.S.] newscasts. However, in this instance, that general rule should not have applied.”

Tyndall elaborated on this by listing three reasons why the story should have made waves in U.S. news. Firstly, girls’ education in Muslim societies is a source of contention in America. Secondly, schoolchildren suffering tragedies–especially in recent times–has engendered passion for support and aid. Thirdly, the entire story is an ongoing mystery–what happened to the girls? Where are they now?

What have we been turning our attention to instead? The disappearance of the Malaysian Airlines jet (which was the lead item on all news shows immediately following the event), the Supreme Court ruling upholding prayer in town council meetings, the E-commerce giant Alibaba going public, Donald Sterling, and–wait for it–Monica freaking Lewinsky and her Vanity Fair essay.

What is it that made U.S. news stations meet it with a collective yawn? In fact, excuse the hypocrisy, but a large portion of the news currently on the girls is actually critiquing the story’s absence in U.S. media, rather than covering the story itself. Perhaps it’s because details have yet to be disclosed. But details of the Malaysian Airlines flight are quite literally buried in the depths of the sea, and yet politicians held daily press conferences on the issue.

Maybe it goes a little deeper than just the “schoolgirl” headline. In February, Boko Haram massacred a boarding school in the neighboring state of Yobe where 43 young boys were killed. In July, again in Yobe, 20 students and their teacher were shot. A few weeks ago, Boko Haram organized a bus bombing in the capital of Abuja killing more than 75 people–the deadliest terrorist act in the city’s history. In fact, in just five years, the extremist group has taken 4,000 lives, displaced almost half a million people, and destroyed hundreds of schools and government buildings as reported by the International Crisis Group. So the question shouldn’t be, “Why didn’t mainstream media report the kidnapping?” but rather, “Why hasn’t mainstream media been reporting on Boko Haram?” Perhaps America harbors a general disinterest toward issues in Africa by assuming that violence in the region is prevalent, and thus almost futile to report.

Edmond Keller, a UCLA political science professor specializing in Africa, told USA Today, “it took something as dramatic as the kidnapping of these young women to really get people’s attention.” It’s true, but it also took the lack of reporting to get people talking about it. This includes the White House: on May 10, Michelle Obama delivered the White House weekly address to continue bringing attention to the story. This sort of coverage is what we needed three weeks ago. In fact, her first address on the matter was through a tweet and not the resources the White House provides.

What ended up grabbing our attention was the social media activism with the hashtags #WhereAreOurGirls and #BringBackOurGirls. Is this what the world has come to? In order to spark human interest and activism, we must turn to social media outlets rather than major U.S. news networks and publications? The downside to this pathway parallels the Kony 2012 movement, which lacked a genuine foundation. The cracks in social media activism are already starting to show in this particular case: a photograph of a young girl has become the face of the circulating hashtags. But here’s the catch: the Washington Post revealed, “She’s not Nigerian. And she’s not abducted.” It turns out this photo circulating for the story are photographs from 2000 taken in Guinea-Bissau, a country more than 2,200 miles from Nigeria. Talk about your American ignorance.

Formal news outlets go through a strenuous process of fact verification and validation that social media does not, making trends spontaneous and founded in passion. The beauty of social media is that it opens doors for otherwise muted opinions to be shared. But if we want practical information, mainstream media upholds an objective stance that gives you the detailed information that a 140-character limit just can’t.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m glad that social media stepped in when mainstream media dropped the ball. But if this is the new outlet we’re relying upon for global news, let’s make sure it can actually do the job.