BH/CH/ADHD: Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention


Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention


“One Dead in London, Ten in Paris, 1,000 in India.”

So goes the apocryphal rendition of traditional British News Values.*

It offers a good launching point to address why the terrible 07 January Charlie Hebdo [CH] murders received massively hyperactive global media attention, while horrific killings by Boko Haram [BH] in the northeastern Nigerian town of Baga in the days before suffered grave global media attention deficit. Several “proximites” and other factors driving media coverage help explain.

As in real estate, the first focus of media is nearly always location. Usually, physical proximity to a news event matters most of all. Paris is far closer to London than is Baga, and to New York by travel time. This is common fare, from the vaunted BBC to your hyper-local rag. Muggings in our own neighborhood are more troubling than murders across town. Floodwaters on your street are greater concern right now than global warming’s softly rising seas. And when the enemy appears on our doorstep, we are well and truly alarmed.

Other sorts of proximity are also powerful, both for audiences and for those who generate and disseminate news—mostly based and/or working for corporate-owned media outlets in the major metropoles. These include security, cultural norms, economic, religious/racial/ethnic, and professional proximities.

On all these drivers of media coverage, CH/Paris trumps BH/Baga. Here, a brief survey:

  • Security—The attack in Paris is one that might be replicated in any major city/ The assault on Baga was on the margins of a troubled country in the “faraway”.
  • Norms—Physical assault on media workers has become taboo inside western countries/ The Baga atrocities are part of a too-familiar pattern in Nigeria.
  • Economic—The economic costs of urban terrorism’s effects on commerce and tourism are similar across major metropoles/ The economic impact of the Baga horror in Europe is arguably nil.
  • Religious/Racial/Ethnic —Western audiences’ ethnic and religious identification with the CH victims is clear/ Identification with BH victims is only on a generalized human connection.
  • Media Professionals—The targets in the CH attacks were journalists; nearly every journalist anywhere feels such an attack viscerally/ Baga was just another [very terrible] story as BH perpetrated [another] remote massacre “somewhere in Africa”.

Inattentiveness and Hyperactivity

“Symptoms of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD),” Britain’s National Health Service informs us, “can be categorised into two sets of behavioural problems… Inattentiveness [and] hyperactivity and impulsiveness.”

And we do see these symptoms in the hyperactive CH/Paris coverage and BH/Baga attention deficit [evidenced in coverage measured in an excellent piece by Ethan Zuckerman here]. These are partially the result of the proximities described above. A few other factors can be quickly, if not thoroughly, noted here: access to the conflict, communications, narrative resonance, telegenics, and official agendas:

  • Access—Paris is easily and safely accessible to major world media/ BH has attacked journalists and Baga is a long and now dangerous journey even from Nigeria’s media capital, Lagos. And absent access, establishing facts and telling a human story is almost impossible. As the BBC noted: “It won’t be the first time we are not sure if 150, 300, 500 or even 2,000 people were killed in a massacre in Nigeria.”
  • Communications—Paris of course has excellent communications; witness the row of satellite trucks as tweeted by the BBC’s @ImeldaFlattery at the massive march on 11 January/ Baga is now nearly cut off, with even mobile communications severely disrupted.
  • Narrative Resonance—The CH/Paris story is one told with the narrative simplicity of a plain good/evil morality tale: Islamists murder Champions of Freedom of Expression, and the simple solidarity of “Je suis Charlie”/ BH/Baga is fraught with doubts about official competence and perhaps collusion in the killings. Even some of the scant coverage was only to reinforce the notion of a greater Islamist threat.
  • Telegenics—Video of the execution of policemen Ahmed Merabet was as enormously shocking as the “Je suis Charlie” march was  telegenic; both reinforced the dominant narrative/ Images from Baga were unavailable.
  • Official agendas—Global officialdom at the highest levels rallied to denounce the “unprecedented” CH/Paris murders [no matter how stained they might themselves be with journalists’ blood], responding to and reinforcing media hyperactivity/ The BH/Baga calamity garnered scant high level attention, remarkably even within Nigeria, seen merely as a [bloodier] continuation of a series of unfortunate events in that country.

Two other factors absent in this context can compel massive media coverage. One is celebrity involvement. Princess Di made us care a bit about landmines. George Clooney briefly branded burning Darfur onto the media agenda. The animal magnetism of elephants, dolphins and loyal hounds also command attention. Combining the two, as I wrote of Paris Hilton’s alleged engagement with drunken elephants, can brew a hyperactive media storm.

Ownership also matters deeply. Most news production is still driven by Western-owned media corporations that represent and report to audiences that feel their values and perhaps their lives are directly threatened by the CH/Paris attacks. Hyperactive—and occasionally hyper-sensational and impulsively Islamophobic coverage—was the rule. Fear, justified or not, sells.

A rough schema summarizing the effect of proximity and further factors above on BH/Baga and CH/Paris coverage is offered in the sidebar.

As Years Go By: On the Record… Not the Agenda

Yet there was reporting of Boko Haram and Baga to be found by any careful reader, albeit far, far less than that of Charlie Hebdo, for the several reasons laid out above. The terrible events from northeastern Nigeria were on the public record, but then and to date lacking intensive coverage required to raise them to the public agenda.

And a quick note on another proximity: chronological. Early next January, extensive and solemn reflection and prognostication will build as the anniversary of the Charlie Hebdo murders nears; on 07 January 2016, it will again dominate global news.

One year on, the Baga massacre is unlikely to be recalled at all. Did we anywhere see mentioned previous outrages in the very same town, these allegedly by the Nigerian Army in April 2013? And where are the Chibok girls today, god or somebody please save them! The profound attention deficit of most Western media for a myriad of serious issues, and particulalry those not perceived of primary proximity to Western audiences and interests, will not soon abate. Baga—and Boko Haram, unless they are spectacularly incautious enough to attack on Western soil—are likely to remain, like most of Africa, in the exotic far faraway. ###

*Recounting his early training as a copy editor in his 2004 book, Grumpy Old Men: The Official Handbook, veteran British journalist Stewart Prebble recalled this newsroom formula: “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”  

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