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Why some international tragedies become big news — and others don’t

While the Paris attack dominated the news cycle for several days, there was comparatively scant coverage for Nigeria. Why? 

A girl displaced as a result of Boko Haram attack in the northeast region of Nigeria, poses for a picture at Maikohi secondary school camp for internally displaced persons in Yola, Adamawa State.
REUTERS/Afolabi Sotunde

Do African lives matter less to us than the lives of Europeans?

It’s an explosive question, one that has been generating Internet and media buzz in the weeks since the terror attacks on the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and a kosher market in Paris. A few days earlier, fighters of the Boko Haram extremist group overran the northern Nigerian town of Baga.

Seventeen people died in Paris. Initial reports put the death toll in Baga as high as 2,000. Both attacks were carried out by Islamic militants. Yet, as a number of critics noted, there was no “Je suis Charlie” moment for Baga. And while the Paris attack dominated the news cycle for several days, there was comparatively scant coverage for Nigeria.

Why? Is it that we just don’t care?

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It’s always tempting to go for the ‘big’ explanation – an overarching  philosophical or cultural reason why things happen the way they do. In the worst of circumstances – not always, by any means  these explanations can slip into something akin to conspiracy theory. But it’s also important to understand how the news media, or any institution, operates: What are its limitations? Where are its red lines?

When I worked for the Los Angeles Times, I assigned or edited Africa stories that were honored with national journalism awards three times within a decade: a continent-wide project in 2004, reporting from Zimbabwe in 2007 and from the Central African Republic last year. So I’m not exactly neutral in this debate. For me, this latter line of inquiry is the more useful way of looking at the riddle of Baga coverage.

It’s probably true that cultural affinity and proximity have a role in what global news gets covered, and how intensely. Paris simply feels closer to most of us than northern Nigeria. And it is closer. Many of us have been there; we feel as though we understand it. Far fewer have been to West Africa, much less northern Nigeria.

That is significant for two reasons. First, as a rule we tend to pay more attention to news that is closer to us. Local news is important because it’s more likely to affect us. And because of that, there are likely to be more reporters there. More reporters equals more stories. And there will always be more reporters for American news media in Europe than in Africa.

But as this column by New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan makes clear, critics of her paper’s coverage weren’t really asking for equal time compared to the Charlie Hebdo attack. They just expected more than the little they found. Sullivan made no apologies for the amount of attention The Times devoted to the Paris attacks – but also agreed that the paper could have given Baga more coverage earlier.

So what happens in a case like this?

First, two important points: What actually appears on any given day is often a function of what is possible to report, file and edit by deadline. And if you talked to reporters and editors from major American or European media, you would find people who are almost universally passionate about their beats, who want to publish or broadcast as much significant news as they can.

It’s just that in a case like Baga, it can be very hard to gather information – much less verify it. The area is remote. Travel is difficult, dangerous and costly. Editors don’t callously send correspondents out to get a story at all costs – no one wants to have someone kidnapped, hurt or killed on their watch. There has been far too much of that lately in Syria. No such assignment is risk free, but they want to be as comfortable as possible with security arrangements.

We may live in an era of instantaneous communication. But this all still takes time.

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It’s also true that reporters and editors are reflexively skeptical about casualty claims. Everyone has been burned at one time or another, and no one wants to report something as fact, only to have to back down.

So you’re left with the prospect of reporting, in effect, that “Something happened, but we really don’t know what.” Given a choice of what to print or broadcast that day, editors often will go with a sure thing and give such a story more time, hoping for some clarity in the meantime.

By the time this story appeared in the LA Times almost a week after the Baga attack, the estimate of 2,000 dead had been largely discredited. A month later, we can say three things about the real figure: It is very likely several times lower, but still very bad, and almost certainly never will be known.

And lest you’re inclined to bypass traditional news media and get your information directly from Twitter, the same story points out that images purportedly showing the Baga massacre were several years old and from completely different locations.

There is some excellent reporting going on now in northern Nigeria. Note this painstaking effort by the BBC  to reconstruct the Baga attack. Or this piece that follows up on the kidnapping of schoolgirls by Boko Haram last year.

There will be more coming. With the government’s inability to defeat Boko Haram one of the main issues, Nigeria will hold a presidential election on Feb. 14.