On the politics of publication

Opinion by Mina Shah
Jan. 20, 2015, 9:40 p.m.

Over the past few weeks, international media, this author included, has been filled with seemingly countless stories about the attack on Charlie Hebdo, a satirical magazine that has its headquarters in Paris. During the attack, twelve people were killed, and responses have consisted in protests and vigils, as well as the creation of trending tags in social media, so that users can display their solidarity.

In contrast to the huge amount of press Charlie Hebdo has gotten, the fact that there were mass attacks in Nigeria, carried out by Boko Haram, has gone relatively unnoticed. Compared to the attack in France, the size — as measured by death toll and the length of the attack — of the massacre in Nigeria was much larger. The attacks, initiating in Baga, in the northeastern part of the country, took place over four days. Over that course, militants ravaged towns by shooting citizens and setting buildings to fire, killing as many as 2,000 people and destroying over 3,000 structures.

However, we might explain the difference in press coverage in one of three ways: the unification of spectators by commitment to the principle of free speech, the anomalous nature of a terrorist attack in Paris, and the fact that no infrastructure was disturbed in France, that the destruction was not total.

First, the fact that the Charlie Hebdo attack was motivated by the content of the cartoons allowed spectators to unite, in a way, for an idyllic, seemingly unproblematic idea: free speech. Since this freedom is something many people find inherently good, it thus becomes easy to support. There is no analogous idea-motivated cause under which to unite in the case of the Nigerian massacre, other than spectators unifying against Boko Haram. This is because the Boko Haram terror attacks were not so specifically targeted. In the Charlie Hebdo case, there were a very specific set of reasons that the attack was carried out when, where, and against whom it was. In Nigeria, the terrorists were attempting mass demolition, indicating that they probably did not have a single idea against which they were fighting.

Uniting against a thing is much less powerful and much less sustainable than uniting for a cause under an idea. By uniting under an ideal, people can feel as though they are working for something larger than themselves, something purposeful and even transcendent. Since the cause is larger in scope and a positive one (that is to say toward an end as opposed to against a different end), participation in it justifies self-righteousness in participants. It is also much more sustainable to rely on an idea that will feel consistently positive. The idea will not perish as a result of time.

Second, attacks in Paris such as this one are uncommon. We see European countries as typically politically and socially stable. In contrast, when thinking about Africa, the most major stories we hear in international media are negative ones, one that would indicate a commonality of chaos, seemingly non-existent in countries like France. For example, in just the past few years, with the outbreak of Ebola, the Westgate Mall shooting, or any number of stories of political unrest, we’ve been so saturated with stories of pain and destruction from Africa that they’ve begun to lose their shock value. It’s easy to pay attention to the Paris attack, simply by virtue of the fact that very few stories of acute instances of chaos come out of France. Our attention is drawn to the difference.

Third, a very large part of the reason that the Paris attack got so much international attention had a lot to do with the fact that the violence was concentrated and motivated by a single specific cause. The small number of deaths gave media a chance to personalize the attack; obituaries of those deceased were common, and there was even a trending hashtag for one slain, #JeSuisAhmed. In contrast, the Boko Haram attack killed too many people for international spectators to receive the same short briefings on their lives. The destruction in Nigeria was much more widely consequential. There were few survivors, and the terrorist organization destroyed much of what was left of already poor infrastructure in the region. Thus reaction to the destruction in Nigeria could not be immediately catalyzed by social media, and the international exposure has so far been significantly smaller than the Charlie Hebdo shooting.

Though these are all concrete, logical reasons as to why international media and public attention might be focusing more on the Charlie Hebdo attack than this other event, this is not to say that such a focus is appropriate or correct. In fact, we really ought to be focusing more on the Nigerian attack than the shooting in Paris. By leveraging these reasons and focusing on the Charlie Hebdo attack, news outlets reinforce international power structures and make judgment calls regarding whose lives are worth what.

In focusing on Charlie Hebdo, the media sends a signal that could easily be interpreted as saying that these twelve lives mattered more than the two thousand lost in Nigeria. In a case such as this, it is the duty of news sources to give lost lives equal attention and thus hopefully help international responses to better reflect the extent of damage and destruction. It is important to stand by our ideals, but it is also important to pay attention when a lot of lives are lost.

Contact Mina Shah at minashah ‘at’ stanford.edu. 

Login or create an account