For the Media, It’s All About Ratings

On Jan. 7, 2015, the world was rattled by the terrorist attack on the Parisian satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo and the manhunt that followed. In the days preceding and during the time of attack, over 2,000 people were killed in Nigeria. Both events were carried out by terrorists. Both events warrant our attention. Yet we were inundated with information about one and heard little about the other.

On the day of the attack on Charlie Hebdo, I was shocked and saddened. Like thousands of others across the country, I was glued to the news for days, waiting attentively for CNN’s rampant updates. About halfway through the second day of broadcasting, CNN gave approximately five minutes (that may be generous) to the massacre of 2,000 people and the displacement of 30,000 others in Nigeria at the hands of Boko Haram.

That small, fleeting piece of news made me take a step back. I realized that other, equally pertinent and impactful events were taking place in the world that the media barely even covered. After that brief interlude, the coverage went immediately back to discussing Charlie Hebdo, leaving the massacre in Nigeria to be forgotten.

Massacres and terrorist attacks in places like Nigeria and Pakistan have historically caused greater harm and casualties in comparison to the attacks against Charlie Hebdo, and yet they garner significantly less international attention. There exist several reasons for this inequity—and none of them are justified.

As Professor Jennifer Taw of CMC’s International Relations Department reminded me, “We pay more attention when we can put faces on victims than when there are too many to show.”

This is, perhaps, a reason that the high-concentration media spotlight was cast upon Nigeria when Boko Haram kidnapped 200 schoolgirls.

We, the consumers, were able to give tangible identities to the tragedy, relate to their situation as fellow students and empathize with human beings rather than with statistics on a screen.

Professor Pierre Englebert, a professor at Pomona College and specialist in African politics, also emphasized that Americans gave more attention to Charlie Hebdo because it is easier to imagine and empathize with than an attack that took place in a familiar society.

Englebert also noted that many Westerners don’t view current events in Nigeria as abnormal. After all, horrific things happen in the ‘undeveloped’ parts of the world all the time, right? Why pay attention to one atrocity when another will just happen again soon?

Many do not understand that the magnitude of this horror is greater than the horrors Nigeria has experienced in the past. The media is looking for ratings, and if Americans are not shocked by what they hear or cannot relate to the story, they are less likely to watch it.  

The unfortunate truth is that Charlie Hebdo sells to American audiences more effectively than the massacre in Nigeria. When the media portrayed the attack in Paris, it was paired with undertones and speculations that this exact same thing could happen in the United States, while the idea of a massacre of 2,000 people in the United States is unlikely.

We, the media and civilians, focus on personal stories of the victims in the Charlie Hebdo attack, and yet we allow the news of victims in Nigeria pass us by.

We are taught as 5C students to think critically about every text we read and assignment we receive. The question now is whether we do the same when we watch the news. It doesn’t matter if you are a staunch college Republican or Democrat, a neo-conservative or an isolationist; we all need to be critical about the information we receive.

As college students, we have a responsibility to ourselves and to each other to look beyond what the media tells us. By trying to understand, or at least educating ourselves, about events that we cannot relate to or that we do not understand, we can cultivate a greater understanding of the world and of our role within the global community. And it all starts with one question: What don’t you hear about?

Isabel Wade CMC ’16 is an international relations major with a French dual (minor) hailing from the United States’ chilly northern neighbor. She recently returned from spending seven months in West Africa and hopes to go back soon.

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