Two gunmen rampaged through the streets of Paris, into Charlie Hebdo headquarters and killed 18 people including civilians, the magazine editor, cartoonists, and police officers on Jan. 7. Since then, Western news networks have sensationalized this story tremendously, to the point where the hashtag “#JeSuisCharlie” (#IamCharlie) became a top trending topic on Twitter and other social media outlets. During the same week, terrorist group Boko Haram managed to raze 16 villages in Baga, Nigeria to the ground: it massacred some 2,000 civilians in the process, according to Al Jazeera America. Since then, shockingly sparse news coverage has failed to bring sufficient attention to this atrocity, a far bloodier scene than in France.
Why the unequal news coverage? Admittedly, various articles have since called out this discrepancy, fueling the outrage the Nigerian story deserves, but why is this an issue to begin with?
Western media did not cover much of the Boko Haram massacre for a multitude of reasons, the simplest being that it doesn’t directly affect Westerners. Even if we are lucky enough not to experience such violence on a similar scale, the suffering and oppression of innocent human beings should move us all in some way. Therefore, Western journalism has the power to make us care, but unfortunately this power is not always utilized correctly. Another example of this particular journalistic bias is the coverage of ISIL’s beheading of Western journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, while no attention was spared for ISIL’s murder of Muslim journalists Mohammed al Aqidi, Raad Mohammed Azaouie, and numerous other Muslim reporters (courtesy of Mic Network). This propagates the Western fear that Muslims, rather than Muslim extremists, are responsible for international terrorism. Lack of coverage about the Muslim dead leads us to believe that terrorists target the West in particular, when in actuality, not even Muslims are spared. These extremists merely act under the guise of Islam, dispensing fear and carnage indiscriminately. Yet Western media often ignores this side of such stories, blinding us in much the same way as with the Nigerian genocide.
As a result, consumers of Western media are ignorant of the distinctions between terrorist groups—each group tends to become one entity in Western minds. Since 9/11, we have had considerable news coverage of terror attacks around the world and, consequently, the shock value of these horrific deeds—especially those set in non-Western countries like Nigeria—has diminished significantly. To the desensitized Western ear, the story of Boko Haram’s massacre sounds similar enough to past mass killings undertaken by other militant groups. But when the same event (on a smaller scale) happens in a Western country with similar values, we are visibly more shaken up, and it definitely shows in our media coverage.
Granted, reporting on the ground in Nigeria is more challenging than in France, but where were the marches in solidarity and online campaigns for the fallen in Nigeria once their story broke?
Perhaps the most callous reason why Western news chooses not to cover certain stories in depth is because news companies, like most companies, aim to make money and up their ratings by attracting viewers, who determine the sort of audience to whom reports must cater. As a result, news network distortion in either sensationalizing or passing over facts is detrimental to public awareness.
We, as the Western public, view the world through the lens of mass media, but if said lens doesn’t focus on crucial events unfolding around the world—regardless of relevance to our own livelihood—we continue to distance ourselves from non-Western cultures, thus encouraging a cycle of ignorance.