Whenever the media covers an act of violence in the Western world with a lot more scrutiny and attention than an act in the so-called underdeveloped world, people complain about the media’s hypocrisy. These public concerns reached a pinnacle during the January coverage of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, while news outlets were filled with stories from France but left very few columns about the massacre of 2,000 people in Nigeria. And to be fair, many, including me have written about Charlie Hebdo in The Daily, yet no stories of the Nigerian town of Baga were told in our pages.
The important question that must be answered is if those criticisms of bias in media coverage are really accurate. One may simply answer no; after all, media rarely treats news with the similar context — like mass killings — the same. Those news reports often find differing levels of column space and air time. However, the reason behind people’s perception of hypocrisy in media is not mainly because of the quantity of the coverage but also because of its quality.
Western media has been inconsistent in the way it depicts people of color or different religions in varying situations. For example, as Mic’s Zak Cheney-Rice explains, media reserves the brand of terrorist to a “special type of person, someone with brown skin, a foreign-sounding name (and) roots in the Middle East or North Africa” but act as if white people cannot be terrorists. No news outlet hesitated a moment to call the perpetrators of Charlie Hebdo shootings “terrorists” — which in fact they were. Yet the same outlets hesitated to call Anders Breivik, a far-right perpetrator of the killings of 77 people in Norway, a terrorist — which by definition he was — but rather used expressions like “angry fantacist”or “radical loser” instead.
At a time when people have more trust in the Internet and television news than they do in Congress, this lack of consistency in coverage and language naturally and rightly angers many people. It is also natural that people look for media hypocrisy when quantity differences occur in news coverage of similar events but concerning people of different identities, like the coverage of Boko Haram terror relative to that of Charlie Hebdo shootings.
Yet we must not mistake those cases for the ones Cheney-Rice explains. In the former, there is a different amount of attention due to leaders, countries and people’s varying amounts of interest; whereas in the latter, there is often a significant inconsistency in quality in the way media covers similar events regarding people with different identities.
Western media sources were more focused on the Charlie Hebdo shooting and its aftermath than Boko Haram’s terror in Baga because their readers could resonate more with the news. For better or worse, it is much more possible for us to relate to an act of terror in France than an armed group moving from town to town killing people in Nigeria. Nevertheless, the differing amounts of media coverage are also because world leaders showed extreme attention to the heinous attack in Paris and showed their solidarity by joining millions of people in Paris, while few went to Nigeria and only a handful even mentioned the killings of thousands in their daily speeches. Most notably, Nigerian leader Goodluck Jonathan joined the march in Paris while he waited a week to address what happened in his own country.
Of course, in an ideal world, I would like to see news with similar context to be covered with the same scrutiny because media has a responsibility to the public of reporting objectively and scrupulously in an effort to establish a well and broadly informed society. But this is not an ideal world, and I can’t blame media outlets for trying to adapt to the market-driven structures of today’s world by stressing the news their viewers would like to see more. Therefore, I don’t believe criticism for covering Charlie Hebdo more than covering Boko Haram’s killings should be directed towards media.
However, if we are looking for someone to blame for the disproportionate attention of the media, we must accuse our leaders for their ineffectiveness in changing the dialogue and addressing the problems of all people. After all, our leaders have the power and capability to do so, but too often they choose not to. The media has a lot to be criticized for, like the inconsistency in terminology that Cheney-Rice discusses, but in terms of quantity of coverage, we should look more to leaders to change the dialogue than to the media.