There are images and events that simply grab the world’s attention.
Case One. The September publication of the picture of the lifeless body of Alan Kurdi, the little Syrian boy who drowned trying to reach Europe, brought all eyes on the ongoing migrant crisis and created an urgency around the issue — even affecting the Canadian electoral campaign and prompting policy changes in Europe.
Case Two. In early January, terrorist attacks in Paris led to the murder of 17 individuals, including 11 people at the offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo. World leaders along with millions of ordinary citizens rallied in France and across the world to show solidarity for the victims and what they represent.
That same week, the Nigerian extremist group Boko Haram attacked the town of Baga, killing perhaps as many 2,000 people. Where was the public outrage? And who has even heard of or remembered this massacre?
These examples reveal a lot about the structure of foreign news. Among all the images of refugees trying to make it Europe why did Alan suddenly crystallize the migrant crisis? Why did the Baga attacks not get the same media and public attention as the Charlie Hebdo case? Are the lives of Nigerians somehow less newsworthy or — worse — less worthy in our attention? As South African journalist Simon Allison recently wrote “There are massacres and there are massacres (…) it may be the 21st century, but African lives are still deemed less newsworthy — and, by implication, less valuable — than western lives.”
Measuring lives, measuring distance
These issues may be uncomfortable to raise but it is crucial to understand the challenges of media coverage of foreign news, media consumerism, and foreign policy. As media scholar Ethan Zuckerman asks, what is the appropriate level of media coverage for a nation to receive? The ongoing humanitarian crisis in South Sudan certainly rarely makes into mainstream Western media. Same is true for the violence in the Central African Republic which Refugees International recently called “impossible to ignore.” Thus the number of deaths or level of human suffering does not seem to play a role. How would one otherwise explain the disparity in coverage between the Baga massacre and the Charlie Hebdo shootings?
The problems raised here are sadly not new. In 1965, Johan Galtung and Mari Ruge looked at the factors influencing the flow of news and came to the conclusion that the media tends not pay attention to what they call “lower-rank” and “distant” nations because there are no or few “high-status” people there, from the perspective of many. Looking at media attention 50 years on, we notice that little has changed. Kim Kardashian certainly gets more global attention than South Sudanese refugees. So much global attention even, that Zuckerman has suggested using “Kardashian” as a unit of measure of media attention she gets in a day compared to other issues.
The media alone are certainly not to blame for this problem. There is a general lack of consumer demand for international coverage as well. In an article on media consumption, American journalist Quinn Norton relates her experience writing about Tunisia, and Africa in general, for a U.S. audience. Her attempt to write differently about the revolution in Tunisia to show how much her fellow citizens had in common with Tunisians failed as she noticed that the audience simply had no interest in her stories. In her article “Looking Past Our Racist Assumptions To See Africa,” she noted that American media predominantly see Africa as a “smoking crater.” Again, nothing has changed. As Galtung and Ruge concluded 50 years ago, the lower the rank of the nation, the more negative will the news have to be. The media not only tends to perpetuate the negative image of Africa or the Middle East but the audience also expects negative news from these parts of the world. It has become normal to see terms such “crisis,” “massacre,” “ISIS,” “Boko Haram,” “Africa” or “Syria” in the same headline. And so we enter a never-ending cycle of negative news coverage and consumer expectation.
As a journalist, how does one deal with the dilemma? And, if one wants to draw attention to a crisis — ‘negative’ news but important and surely multifaceted — in order to perhaps bring about policy change, how does one do it?
The power of Alan’s picture resides it our capacity to see ourselves in it. Because we don’t see the child’s face, it could be any child on a beach. What shocks us is that he — a father’s young son — is not playing with a ball or making sand castles. The differences between “us” (in the West) and “them” (the refugees) are lessened, and the Syrian conflict, which seemed to be a distant situation, appears closer. Being told about the number of deaths in Syria or Nigeria is important, but to Western audiences these numbers are just unimaginable and the lives affected, from the casualties to the survivors, are hard to relate to. The details are lumped into the idea of distant crises in troubled regions, where death is normalized and the details are too complex to be understood.
The #BringBackOurGirls effect
So if we have become used to seeing news of violence in Nigeria, why did the kidnapping of 280 girls bring international attention to the Boko Haram insurgency? This was certainly not the group’s first — or last — kidnapping.
We would suggest that this event got the world’s interest in large part because the campaign #BringBackOurGirls was taken up by Western celebrities and high-status people such as Michelle Obama, Drake and Alicia Keys. Celebrities even carried #BringBackOurGirls signs at Cannes’ film festival red carpet events.
But while this kind of advocacy and attention to the ongoing violence in Nigeria is welcome, was the attention, ultimately, on the victims or on the celebrities? Is it not another “cause célèbre” that is now rapidly receding from our minds and from the media? Did it encourage policymakers to turn their attention to the cause, or create a deeper understanding of the context in Nigeria?
The media, and media consumers, can learn from the cases mentioned here.
If Alan Kurdi’s picture and the #BringBackOurGirls campaign brought international attention to wider crises and led to policy change, then it is a proof that, today, media coverage can influence foreign policy. We live in a globalized, internet-connected world but, paradoxically, we are not necessarily more closely connected to other parts of the world. Yet, as Zuckerman states, “we encounter the world media” and “have to take responsibility for shaping the tools we use to encounter the world.”
In the fast-changing and unpredictable world of media saturation, it is it important to state that press attention can have the power to change the way we envision and engage with the world, and the ‘other.’