What makes one horrific event more newsworthy than another?


Special to the RJRC

When told 2,000 Nigerians were slaughtered in an attack earlier this month, Ryerson University student Shaun Garson’s blank stare was typical of many who were interviewed.

He wasn’t aware of it.

“Not even slightly,” he said.

An estimated 2,000 Nigerians – mostly women, children and the elderly – were massacred in the town of Baga by Boko Haram on Jan. 3. It was the deadliest massacre in the history of the Islamic terrorist group, according to Amnesty International.

Although it was reported on, other news events quickly captured front pages and headlines. As news broke Jan. 7 of masked gunmen terrorizing the City of Light, threatening the right to free expression at the headquarters of French satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo –  “2,000 dead in Nigeria” was reduced to scrolling the bottom ticker.

But what makes one horrific event more newsworthy than another?

Calling it the most miserable of reasons, Ryerson journalism professor and former CBC journalist Lisa Taylor said: “The Western media tends to value Western lives more than it values other lives. That has always been clear.”

It was clear and disheartening for Enang Ukoh, president of the University of Toronto’s Nigerian Students Association.

“We are sincerely disappointed by the treatment of the Nigerian killings in the media. We believe that there has been a general lacklustre representation of the value of Nigerian lives,” Ukoh said.

Taylor explained the “lacklustre representation”:

“One of the news values is proximity. If something happens in our city, it’s more likely to get covered than if it’s in a different city. The same will apply further and further into the world. For North American media, France seemed closer and more accessible,” she said.

“Why in the world the Golden Globes come close to eclipsing any of this, I’ll never understand. It makes my head hurt. We’ve become pretty far removed from what real journalism is and often what journalists are doing is providing content that entertains – but I’m no longer sure it’s journalism.”

Taylor said that what resonates most with audiences will get the most ink and airtime; it has become a practical matter.

Others interviewed, those who were aware of the recent round of Boko Haram attacks, supported Taylor’s rationale, saying their hearts simply “went out more to Paris.”

“An attack on Paris is more sexy and frightening than an attack in a remote village in the third world,” said Mishkath Khan, an international relations and political science student at University of Toronto’s Trinity College. “When I first heard about the Nigerian massacre – I was like wow, that’s really sad. Then I read about the Charlie Hebdo shooting, and this is going to sound terrible, but my heart went out more to Paris.

“Everyone’s heart went out to Paris because it could’ve been our city. It could’ve been us. But Nigeria doesn’t pop up on our radar, it doesn’t affect us and their own government is denying it. Then 12 people die in Paris and [German chancellor] Angela Merkel, [British Prime Minister] David Cameron and several other leaders fly out. [Prime Minister] Stephen Harper calls it a declaration of war. It shows our Western-centric ideals,” she said.

“Two thousand Muslims die at the hands of other Muslims and nobody gives a shit and 12 Parisians die at the hands of two Muslims and it’s ‘an act of war.'”

Fabian Nwaoha, president of the Nigerian Canadian Association, understands that audience and proximity determine the news, but does not excuse the media for the  lack of coverage.

“Many [news organizations] are not interested or think it’s a Nigerian problem, but Boko Haram is not just a Nigerian problem – they’re terrorists. It’s an international problem. It’s personal perception – what [news organizations] feel should make the news, makes news,” he said. “But nine out of 10 times they will not bother with the third world.”

Chidi Nwanyanwu, social secretary of the Nigerian Canadian Association says it is the media’s responsibility to chase important issues and bring them to the limelight.

“Everyone depends on the media, even governments, but the media directed the public’s attention to other things. If they gave the horrors in Nigeria the attention they deserve, everyone would be compelled to help,” Nwanyanwu said.

However, CBC commentator Rex Murphy, who raised this very issue on CBC News last week, describes the principle of proximity determining news not as bias, but human nature.

“It’s simply human nature, if it relates to your home, if it relates to something close to you, it’s not necessarily fair, [but it gets more of your attention.] You’re not being cruel and you’re not being biased. In a universal sense, they’re all equally important, but we’re not neutral observers of the world – we have friends, we have family, we have country,” he said.

“On the matter of 2,000 people being killed by absolute fanatics… children, young women, … and old people – that’s such a moral stain, that in one sense, it doesn’t matter where it happened. So it wasn’t a footnote. It was covered, but in no way got to the scale [of Paris].

“With these [terrorist attacks] starting to happen closer to home, with Ottawa and Boston, naturally the news services in our part of the world are going to cover stories that might have an implication for people in this part of the world,” Murphy said.

Beyond proximity, other key factors determine why news cannot be covered to the same degree in all parts of the world. Nigeria poses certain risks and practical challenges for journalists not present in Paris.

“One thing you didn’t have the shortage of in Paris were other journalists to talk about the death of Charlie Hebdo journalists. With the Nigerian massacre, I’m not even sure where the closest Western media would have been – no doubt hundreds of kilometres away,” Taylor said.

“No one was there on the ground, no one could directly bear witness,” therefore, a form of good journalism was exercised in a strange way as unverified facts were not being published, she said.

“Covering Nigeria has been a challenge for quite some time for Western media and it’s gotten more challenging because it’s been made clear that to try to cover the acts of Boko Haram will put journalists in great danger.”

The vast political differences in parts of the world can also affect the coverage it receives.

Taylor: “To compare [the Nigerian terrorist attacks] to Charlie Hebdo, politicians in France spoke up vociferously. In fact, they spoke up so vociferously that they pretended they liked free expression far more than they actually seem to really like free expression – but very much like a cause they were going to get behind.

“You look at the head of official political reaction in Nigeria about the Nigerian massacre and my understanding is that Goodluck Jonathan didn’t say squat about this. Nigerian politicians seemed very comfortable with not speaking about this and perhaps just looking the other way,” Taylor said.

“There’s no denying that Boko Haram has grown into this tremendous force of evil under their watch and [Nigerian officials] don’t seem keen to call the world’s attention to what’s happening.”

Ukoh said the Nigerian government’s failure to address the issue is a primary source of frustration for Nigerians.

“If the government shows a disregard for Nigerians, it becomes the responsibility of the people to put pressure on the government to influence change,” he said. “It is our hope that Nigerians stand up collectively for their lives and hopefully the rest of the world will follow.”

Ukoh and Murphy agree that change is necessary.

Murphy: “We’ve gone a long time where events of this kind occur and we pass them by because they’ve got no relation to us. Well, when conduct of that kind becomes normalized and it doesn’t even make the headlines, we clear the avenue for something like that happening again.

“We have to engineer something that responds to the moral scale of things, independent of whether it’s close to us. If something of that scale does happen, we can’t stand aside,” he said.

“We cannot let ourselves get used to the idea, that in this world, [massacres] are normal.”

Ilina Ghosh is a first-year journalism student at Ryerson University.