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

BH/CH/ADHD:

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.”  

One thought on “BH/CH/ADHD: Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention

  1. POLS3512
    Salome Wyns
    44391056

    Written Critical Blog: Reflections on the Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention

    Thomas Lansner starts his article with the powerful statement: “One Dead in London, Ten in Paris, 1,000 in India, so goes the apocryphal rendition of traditional British News Values.” The lack of media and public attention of tragic massacres such as the one committed by Boko Haram (BH) in Baga prompts us to ask ourselves what makes a human life more newsworthy than another. And by implication, what makes a Western life more valuable than a non-Western one? The phenomenon of global media attention deficit versus global media hyperactivity can be understood in the context of a hyper-mediatised and increasingly connected world, in which violence and fear sell, to the extent that some sort of moral connection between the media consumer and the victim exists.

    Thomas Lansner has written an extremely interesting article about the battle for global media attention by comparing the coverage of the Charlie Hebdo (CH) attack in France and the Baga massacre in Nigeria, both of which occurred in early January 2015. His main argument is built around a striking analogy, in which he compares the global media coverage of terrorist attacks to the two sets of behavioural problems associated with ADHD: attention deficit and hyperactivity. Indeed, one the one hand, global media attention for the Paris attacks was extensive whereas media attention for the Baga massacre was almost inexistent.

    To build this argument, Lansner first highlights the importance of physical proximity as a determinant for media coverage and emotional impact. He then proceeds to list additional factors he considers powerful for audiences and news editors/journalists. These include economic, security or professional proximities amongst others. Lansner goes on to add more variables that drive media coverage. Some of these factors are of a practical nature: for instance, access to the location of the attack or the telegenic value of an event. Moreover, he reminds us of a factor that skews coverage towards Western news stories: the process of oligopolisation of the global media market (Kaempf, 2013:595; Warf, 2007).

    In light of the existing literature, Lansner has written an insightful piece which contributes to the literature on the topic of the relationship between terrorism, proximity and mass media. His argument is especially original in that he is one of the few authors that so explicitly highlights the dichotomy between the hyperactive media coverage of certain events and the lack of attention to others. In the literature on this topic, Lansner’s claim that there exists an imbalance in the global media coverage of news events is well supported.

    The existing research establishing a link between proximity and the extent of media coverage further supports Lansner’s argument. More than five decades ago, Galtung and Ruge (1965) established a scoring system determining the newsworthiness of an event. This system is comprised of twelve factors. Four of these were applied by Lansner (2015) and Zuckerman (2015) to explain the disparities in the coverage of the attacks in Paris and in Baga. Firstly, they highlight the role of cultural proximity or religious/racial/ethnic proximity. As Lansner (2015), Galtung and Ruge (1965) and Zuckerman (2015) argue, we are more likely to pay attention to events in which the people affected have similar lives than our own. This that countries that have proximities with developed Western countries are deemed more ‘newsworthy’ is especially convincing as it has been widely supported in the literature (Chang et al, 1987; Wu, 2000; Galtung and Ruge, 1965; Zuckerman, 2015). It is indeed quite hard for the average mainstream Western media consumer to imagine him or herself living in a village on the edge of the Sahara Desert, all the while fleeing a rebel army (Zuckerman, 2015). A second mutual factor is consonance or security proximity. Events that receive media attention are more likely to be consonant with narratives we know and understand (Galtung and Ruge, 1965; Lansner, 2015). As terrorist attacks targeting major Western cities have unfortunately become much too familiar, people can imagine them being replicated in their own city. The third factor is unambiguity or narrative resonance. Events that are easy to interpret or that reinforce an existing narrative –the ‘clash of civilisations’ narrative for the CH attacks for instance- are more likely to receive extensive coverage. The final mutual variable to these scholars’ work is personalisation or in this case media journalists. Indeed, the fact that news is centred on people, and in this case on journalists -represented as heroes- have influenced the hyper-mediatisation of the Paris attacks. It can thus be concluded that both the factors used of Gulting and Ruge (1965) and Zuckerman (2015) to explain the inclusion or exclusion of news stories are in alignment with the variables Lansner has used to analyse the coverage of the Paris and Baga attacks.

    This section will nonetheless argue that four additional elements could have been considered when analysing the ‘ADHD’ character of global media coverage in order to make the article more comprehensive and insightful. Firstly, I believe the role that the culture of fear plays in the hyper-mediatisation of terrorist attacks in the West could have been further explored. Besides stating at the end of his article that ‘fear, justified or not, sells’, Lansner does not take into account the extent to which fear has dominated media discourses since 9/11 (Jeffries, 2013; Bauman, 2006), and the potential effect it has had on the hyper mediatisation of terrorist events. As Jeffries (2013) argues, fear is ‘the connective tissue of our global network society’. The omnipresence and unexpectedness of terrorist threats and the fear associated with it shapes political debates as well as media coverage. This fear has resulted in a frantic coverage of terrorist events is often results in superficial and simplistic versions of complex news stories (Renard, 2016). With regards to the attention deficit part of ADHD, to nuance his argument, Lansner could have also pointed to the lack of political and media reaction from Nigerian and African media outlets and leaders. Indeed, the tone of the article creates the impression that the Western media is entirely to blame for the lack of attention to the Baga massacre. However, the lack of outrage and solidarity from African media and leaders over the massacre was as evident as the Western one. Granted the risks faced by journalists to report stories are enormous as Boko Haram controls the state of Borno. However, there is no explanation for Nigerian president Goodluck Jonathan’s silence. Indeed, while Jonathan has condemned the Paris attack as ‘dastardly’, he has not even commented on the violence in his own country (BBC, 2015). As Simon Allison (2015) argued in his piece for the Daily Maverick, the outrage and sympathy over the Paris attacks is also a symbol of how Africans have neglected their own tragedies and lives to prioritise Western ones. Finally, I believe that to take his argument a step further, Lansner could have analysed how the framing of these terrorist events shapes public perception and agenda-setting. For instance, terrorist attacks by Islamic extremists on Muslims are more frequent than those on non-Muslim (Zuckerman, 2015). Thus, representation of attacks such as the one in Baga would help the mainstream public to understand that extremism is the enemy rather than Islam, and shape public opinion for the better (Zuckerman, 2015). Furthermore, in 1972, McCombs and Shaw argued that mass media plays an important role in determining the issues that will be on the agenda during national campaigns. Similarly, scholars have explored the agenda-setting function of mass media with regards to foreign policy (Baum and Potter, 2008). The potential link between mass media, public opinion and foreign policy would be an interesting topic to explore to strengthen this article. By taking this further step, Lansner would have emphasised the importance of media representation beyond moral fairness.

    Overall, Thomas Lansner has produced an interesting and original piece on the battle for global media attention. This critical review has argued that his argument was convincing in light of the existing literature, finding virtually no damaging counter-evidence. Nonetheless, a few recommendations were provided to strengthen Lansner’s overall argument. Firstly, this review has suggested to take into account the extent to which fear has permeated media culture and consequently shaped the hyper mediatisation of terrorism. Secondly, to recognise the lack of attention for the Baga massacre from the African community. Finally, to potentially explore the importance of media representation for public opinion and agenda setting. As a concluding sentence for this critical blog review, I will leave the link to a graphic essay from Kenyan Cartoonist Victor Ndula, which gives an African perspective on #JeSuisCharlie and #JesuisBaga. https://www.cartoonmovement.com/icomic/72.

    References:

    Allison, S. (2015).  ‘I Am Charlie, but I am Baga too: On Nigeria’s Forgotten Massacre’. The Daily Maverick, 12 Jan 2015. Available at : https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2015-01-12-i-am-charlie-but-i-am-baga-too-on-nigerias-forgotten-massacre/#.WS5IExPyifU.
    Baum, M. A. & Potter, P. B. (2008). ‘The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis. Annu. Rev. Polit. Sci., 11, 39-65.

    Bauman, Z. (2006). ‘Liquid Fear’. Cambridge: Polity

    BBC News (2015). ‘Boko Haram Crisis: Nigeria’s Baga Town Hit By New Assault’. 8 January 2015. Available at : http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-africa-30728158.

    Chang, T. K. et al (1987). ‘Determinants of International News Coverage in the US Media’. Communication Research, 14(4), 396-414.

    Galtung, J., & Ruge, M. H. (1965). ‘The Structure of Foreign News: The Presentation of the Congo, Cuba and Cyprus Crises in Four Norwegian Newspapers’. Journal of peace research, 2(1), 64-90.

    Jeffries, F. (2013). ‘Mediating Fear’. Global Media and Communication 9(1), 37-52.

    Kaempf, S. (2013). ‘The Mediatisation of War in a Transforming Global Media Landscape’. Australian Journal of International Affairs, 67:5, 586-604.

    Lansner, T.R. (2015). ‘BH/CH/ADHD: Boko v Charlie Battle for Global Media Attention’. The Vision Machine, Media, War and Peace. Available at: http://thevisionmachine.com/2015/01/bokovcharlie/.

    McCombs, M. E., & Shaw, D. L. (1972). ‘The Agenda-Setting Function of Mass Media.’ Public opinion quarterly, 36(2), 176-187.

    Ndula, V. (2015). ‘Je Suis Africa’. Cartoon Movement, 21 Jan 2015. Available at : https://www.cartoonmovement.com/icomic/72.

    Renard, T. (2016). ‘Fear Not: A Critical Perspective on the Terrorist Threat in Europe.’

    Warf, B. (2007). ‘Oligopolization of Global Media and Telecommunications and Its Implications for Democracy’. Ethics, Place and Environment 10 (1): 89105.

    Wu, H. D. (2000). ‘Systemic Determinants of International News Coverage: A Comparison of 38 Countries. Journal of communication, 50(2), 110-130.

    Zuckerman, E. (2015). ‘Honor Every Death: Paying Attention to Terror in Baga, Nigeria as well as Paris’. …My Heart’s in Accra. Available at: http://www.ethanzuckerman.com/blog/2015/01/09/honor-every-death-paying-attention-to-terror-in-baga-nigeria-as-well-as-paris/.


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