Girls hogging the microphone again

Well thank fuck somebody is asking the real question about the kidnapped and enslaved schoolgirls in Nigeria. Noah Rothman at Medialite is asking it.

This focus on Boko Haram from both the media and the government is an unqualified good. The press arguably increased the pressure on global governments to do something about this backwards group of terrorists. But Boko Haram is not a new phenomenon. It was not long ago that some – including this author – were asking why this group’s atrocities were not generating any attention in the press.

On February 25, between 40 and 59 children were killed by the fundamentalist militant group. Early that morning, Boko Haram terrorists attacked a boarding school and shot many of children, aged 11 to 18, while they slept. Some of the students were gunned down as they attempted to flee. Others had their throats slit. In some buildings, Boko Haram militants locked the doors and set the building alight. The occupants were burned alive.

All of the victims were boys. Reports indicated that the young girls the militants encountered were spared. According to the BBC, the militants told the girls to flee, get married, and shun the western education to which they were privy.

Beyond wire reports and a handful of segments on globally-focused outlets like NPR, this atrocity went unremarked upon in the popular news media.

February 25 was not Boko Haram’s first atrocity. By March, more than 1,000 people had been killed in the country’s northeast since the first of the year. Prior to Boko Haram’s shift in tactics, from wholesale slaughter of young men to the kidnapping of young women, the group traveled from village to village where they killed children and razed buildings with near impunity.

The massacre in February prompted me to ask what the press found lacking in story surrounding Boko Haram’s atrocities that they would not cover it extensively. Was it a geographical bias? Was reporting from Western Africa more difficult than Beslan, Russia? There, hundreds of school children were massacred in 2004, and that event comprehensively covered in the Western press. Maybe there was simply an ethnic bias at play, and American audiences were prejudged to care less about atrocities in Africa than in Europe.

But the events of the last month have demonstrated that none of these explanations were accurate. Apparently, the press simply needed the right reason to cover this terrorist group and their brutal tactics. But an even more disturbing question needs to be asked now: why did the press spring to action when young women were kidnapped, but were virtually unmoved when it was young boys who were being slaughtered and burned alive?

Yes, that’s the important question here.





  1. apostrophobia says

    I feel ill. Really, we’re going to complain that people are covering the sex slavery of 250+ girls because 50 + boys died? Yes, it’s horrible that these boys were killed and yes the press should have covered it (though I see no evidence that they didn’t), but seriously?? “What about the menz?!?!” when these girls are being SOLD as SLAVES?

    When did this become a zero sum game?

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    I don’t know where else to put this, but it makes me so sad/mad – is that smad?

    This young woman in an NYC Occupy Movement trial, Cecily McMillan, was in a group of protesters who were arrested by police. A police officer with a history of violent behavior grabbed her right breast savagely from behind – and she had the bruises to prove it. When she elbowed him in the face reflexively, she ended up arrested. She’s just been sentenced to SEVEN YEARS IN PRISON – for retaliating for being groped. It’s a travesty.

    I just needed to sound off – feel free to delete this post. My goal is not to hijack this thread.

  3. dmcclean says

    There doesn’t have to be only one question.

    This is clearly not “the important question” here, or even in the top 10.

    I think it is marginally interesting. Perhaps there is a bias towards thinking that young women need our protection? That young school boys have agency and so if they are killed it must be because they are bravely standing up to Boko Haram but if young girls are killed they are helpless victims and isn’t this tragic? Maybe the broadly favorable and impressive Malala Yousafzai speeches and interviews made this seem more salient? Maybe “brown people are raping, look at the evil brown people” carries weight? I could probably come up with some more guesses, but none of them really jumps out at me. Also all of them are pretty bad; I think it’s safe to say that “because we think girls are more important than boys” isn’t even in the running.

    It’s also entirely possible that his factual premise is full of shit though. Were boys more victimized? Were schools exclusively for boys (which I assume exist, because reasons) targeted? He doesn’t say. And his self-cite is only obliquely on point, it doesn’t note a pattern of victimization of boys which I expected it to do given how strongly he asserts his conclusion in the final paragraph. Did these earlier incidents really get sparse coverage? Just as an accident of timing I am usually driving to work when the BBC World Service is on the local NPR station, so I don’t know if his assertion about other outlets is true or not.

    There’s also the obvious point that the most recent horrible thing in a chain of horrible things is intrinsically more likely to get coverage because all the other horrible things are backstory that make it seem like part of an important ongoing thing and not just some fluke occurrence. If there are three bad hurricanes in a row, of equal destructiveness, you can count on CNN and Fox News to cover the third one much more heavily and start speculating about whether the illuminati have a weather machine.

    All that said, I think your headline is being a little hard on Rothman (unless he has a history of being an asshat, I’ve never heard of him or read any of his stuff before, and I’m not familiar with Mediaite).

  4. dmcclean says

    Wow, @1. That is horrible. You’d think they’d be so corrupt that they’d intimidate her into not suing by threatening charges, but then the authorities find a way to smash even those low expectations.

    (If the article is correct, though, there is one more link in the system. It says that she was remanded to custody pending sentencing, and could face as much as 7 years, not that she’s been sentenced to 7 years. It is dated 5/5 though, perhaps she was sentenced since then. Hopefully the judge will sentence her to time served and call out the police from the bench.)

  5. brucegee1962 says

    I think the reason the current situation is getting more play isn’t the boys vs. girls, it’s the killing vs. kidnapping. My suspicion is that if the girls had been killed, we would have ignored them too, as we have tended to ignore similar killings in other countries.

    When you hear about a killing in a foreign country, you think “Meh, that’s horrible, but there’s nothing I can do about it,” and you go on to think about something else.

    A kidnapping is an ongoing situation. Theoretically, you COULD do something about it, or at least your leaders could. You can also imagine the continuing anguish of the kidnapped girls and their parents, whereas the murder victims presumably had a brief moment of terror, sometime in the past.

    Just a guess — I don’t really have any evidence.

  6. Blanche Quizno says

    Selling kidnapped girls into sexual slavery tends to grab headlines. Human trafficking is rather a hot button these days.

    But I find myself wondering – now that the US is sending “a team of military and security experts” in to assist with the problem, once the problem is resolved (for better or for worse), will the “military and security experts” leave? Or will we find ourselves with another embryonic Al Quaeda which, of course, only becomes a problem when it starts acting independently? Saddam Hussein was one of our other notable lackeys who unfortunately developed a mind of his own. It was the US who sold him the poison gas he used to slaughter the Kurds, after all. Is that what we’re seeing in its formative stages here? A kind of toxic alliance?

    Where’s the UN? Why isn’t the UN sending in platoons of peacekeepers to scour the forest and flush out those girls?

  7. chigau (違う) says

    I agree with brucegee1962.
    Dead is dead.™ Grieve and go on.™
    Is very different from DO SOMETHING!

    Noah Rothman is not even wrong.

  8. says

    Jesus Christ on a pogo stick, that dood doesn’t know his own industry very well, does he?

    Also, I wonder what 10,000 latest atrocities our intrepid and insightful journalist failed to cover. Dumbass.

  9. says

    Actually it is a point. Boko Haram have been killing people for the past 2 to 3 years. When they massacred young men there was very little western outcry over it.

    I regularly write about my friends in Africa who run similar clinics to mine. I wrote about a clinic where a Christian Mob massacred nearly a hundred muslims and killed 3 aid workers. No one cared. It is quite disheartening to see what goes viral and what doesn’t. This went viral, the deaths of people who do my work did not.

    The truth is we cannot be emotionally invested in everything. The young men who died didn’t capture the imagination of people in the West because we had a plane to worry about. This is our new “plane”.

    And consider the scale of the Ferry tragedy in Korea? Or the Animist/Muslim violence in India? Plenty of atrocities never get to see front page news.

  10. Question mark says

    While I don’t agree with Rothman’s downplaying of the Nigerian girls’ abduction and enslavement, he is right about one thing: atrocities in Africa get far too little media attention.

    There are many horrible things happening in Africa, to young girls, to little boys, to adult women and to grown men. If we want things to change, then we need to get people to care, and for people to care, they need be made aware of all the repugnant, injustifiable horrors occurring around the world on a daily basis. So long as the media leaves people in the dark, they will be allowed to keep living in their blissfully ignorant illusion-bubble. Inaction makes us all (but especially the people with major influence: the media and the people in power) accessory to these crimes.

  11. hoary puccoon says

    I think brucegee 1962 @4 got it right. Once the boys were dead, that part of the story was known. It was horrible and heartbreaking, but repeating it was horrible and heartbreaking isn’t news. The fate of the girls is still in question. so that’s a story viewers/readers might follow.

  12. echidna says

    I’ll add yet another voice saying Bruce Gee got it right. It’s not about who the victims were so much as it is about the ability to respond in a constructive way.

    Somehow, we need to protect our mental health from ruminating over things we cannot control, while maintaining a properly empathic response for the time where can we can do something constructive. I don’t think this is a trivial task for anybody.

  13. Kierra says

    why did the press spring to action when young women were kidnapped, but were virtually unmoved when it was young boys who were being slaughtered and burned alive?

    I’d hardly call the press’s response “spring[ing] to action” given that it’s been a month since the girls were kidnapped and the media ramp-up only really started a week ago at most.

    Though I do agree with the previous posts. If this wasn’t an ongoing situation, there wouldn’t have been time for social media to shame the major networks into covering the story before that story was old news.

  14. karmacat says

    I think commenters have raised a lot of good points. In addition, there is a concept of compassion fatigue. There are so many injustices and victims in this world, it becomes difficult to think about especially if one feels helpless. What can one do for people in Syria, in CAR, in Sudan, Ukraine. After a while, I say to himself, screw people, I’m sending my money to protect wolves, elephants, other animals.
    Personally, I think the US would have more influence on the world if they spent less on defense and more on foreign aid. People who go from poverty to middle class have more time and resources to challenge the problems in the leadership of a country. Military solutions end of causing for chaos and reactionary anger towards the US.

  15. A Hermit says

    One more vote for the “killing vs kidnapping” distinction being the big difference here.

    And there’s no question the horrific violence in parts of Africa gets largely ignored in Western media. The wars in the Congo around the turn of the century killed as many as 5 million people but got almost no media coverage.

  16. says

    I’m pretty sure that’s the explanation in my case. (I would say I know it is, except that I keep remembering how unreliable introspection is. But really, I do know it [as far as I know].) I kept on it, I kept searching Google News for new coverage on it during the week or two when it wasn’t being covered very much, BECAUSE it was a thing in the present tense as opposed to the past. It was still happening. It wasn’t over. The girls were not dead but captive.

  17. theoreticalgrrrl says

    “Selling kidnapped girls into sexual slavery tends to grab headlines.”

    Actually this didn’t grab headlines until only recently due to grass root pressure from social media. The “bring back our girls” hashtag finally started to trend a few days ago.

  18. says

    why did the press spring to action when young women were kidnapped, but were virtually unmoved when it was young boys who were being slaughtered and burned alive?

    Actually, the important question is “why isn’t anybody doing anything to stop fucking Boko Haram?”
    Also, damsel in distress is a trope in the media.

  19. jesse says

    Before we go all “the press didn’t report this thing” I seem to recall this story being on 24/7 for a while, and before that Boko Haram was in the news pretty regularly.

    A hat tip to Back Skeptics, but I found this link helpful to think before I speak:

    And this part is especially important I think:

    7. Before launching a western interventionist campaign in Nigeria, think hard about whether what you are proposing will make things better. Think about the repercussions of such actions. Ask what people are doing on the ground. Sensible people will not reject earnest help and support if they need it. Why would they? Talk to Nigerians first. It’s their country, they’re the ones who have to live in it. Do you know about the protests going on regarding the kidnapped girls, like the Million Woman March? These are the type of things you will read in African media outlets first, which is why it is important to get your information directly from them. So while you’re complaining about the western media not doing enough, you are not paying attention to the people who are doing everything they can and the people reporting it. Whether you feel that is effective or not, the fact is that Nigerians are mobilizing in the face of crisis and poor leadership. They aren’t resting on their laurels. The cries of some understandably distraught parents asking for any and all help doesn’t mean Nigerians are begging for foreign intervention. They have agency. It’s not your ship to steer. People not in Nigeria should take an ancillary role and find out how they can support the people on the ground. You know, that whole “be a good ally” pep talk we give to white people. If you are allegedly doing something for the benefit of Nigerians or to rectify an awful situation in Nigeria without consulting Nigerians, listening to Nigerians or thinking thoughtfully about how your suggestions will affect Nigerians in the long term, you aren’t being a good ally. What’s the point of your help then?

    This is really important to stress, and I have brought it up before in other contexts: beware the creeping Orientalism or exoticism that we as Westerners can bring on. There’s a strong tendency to speak of other people — especially people from differing traditions — as though they are primitive savages, as though what they do doesn’t “count” (the above bog’s note about how African media ha covered this story and Boko Haram well for months at least is a case in point).

    Also, western intervention hasn’t exactly been the most glorious enterprise in Africa or anywhere else. There’s such a thing as creating more problems than you solve unless you know what you are about. No, this doesn’t mean I don’t care that the girls were kidnapped. It does mean that I know life isn’t an action movie and the Rambo option is as likely to get a lot of people dead as to free anybody — and dead people can’t reunite with their families. There are no good options, sometimes. Just less bad ones. But if we’re taking about Nigerians as though they aren’t in the room, so to speak, then we’re doing it wrong.

  20. Jackie the wacky says

    There really is no tragedy that can happen to women so grim that someone won’t interject “What about teh menz!” into the discussion of it.

  21. says

    jesse – why are you lecturing me about “talking about Nigerians as though they aren’t in the room”? Do you think I’ve been doing that? I think what I’ve been doing is trying to amplify the voices of Nigerians reporting on issues in Nigeria as well as trying to amplify reports on events in Nigeria that should not be ignored.

  22. says

    Ditto @18. I remember when the story of the kidnappings was first reported, and found it remarkable that for days and weeks afterwards it continued to languish as a minor side story. Even now after Michelle Obama has gotten involved it’s STILL just a side story that few news outlets are following.

  23. Question mark says

    @20 jesse
    If combatants wish to slaughter each other without intervention from the West, then I might say that’s their right. They do not, however, have the right to involve innocent citizens in their conflict. And that’s exactly what’s happening in many conflicts in Africa and other parts of the world. More often than not, the innocent population is effectively being targeted by combatants, for all kinds of despicable reasons. In my opinion, any person with a sense of morality has a right to intervene in that situation. If some Nigerians don’t want any foreign troops to help out their fellow Nigerians because of some sense of national pride, then I think they got their priorities wrong. If I were an interventionist soldier on the ground in Nigeria and I come across a Nigerian victim of Boko Haram violence who tells me he/she really doesn’t want my help, then I’d respect that person’s opinion. But if random non-victimized Nigerians tell me not to help anyone, then I’m not going to feel less inclined to help.

    Having said that, I’ll admit that military interventions obviously aren’t the fix-all cure-all solution. For one thing, some nation’s armies are rife with ignorant racists and macho psychopaths that’ll happily kill any foreign-looking people that look at them the wrong way. Obviously these are not soldiers we want to send over. It also won’t solve the underlying issues of poverty, corruption and ethno-religious divisions, but I might argue that taking the rampant oppression and violence from Boko Haram out of the picture would be a big enabling factor for the population. An international presence could also be a relevant motivating factor for the Nigerian government to pull itself together and tackle these underlying issues.

  24. johnthedrunkard says

    Wasn’t Boko Haram killing and enslaving women and girls already? The mass kidnapping and the distress of relatives and neighbors over the Nigerian government’s passivity and/or collusion with Boko Haram may have helped get THIS story into the world media. The pattern of poor/absent coverage was well in place without any gender issue.

    We don’t want to report ‘bad news’ about kleptocracies and failed states…OOPS! ‘developing countries.’
    We don’t want to report anything about Islamist violence until we have an ‘official’ thread of blame that will lead to Israel, or the US, or ‘Western Imperialism’ etc. etc.

    It is an unalloyed good that SOMETHING awakened public awareness of Boko Haram, just is it was Good for the world to wake up to Joseph Kony. Why it took so long is no mystery. When we can connect terrorism to fashion, weight loss, and ‘reality TV,’ the American media will cover it.

  25. says

    why did the press spring to action when young women were kidnapped

    Well, for starters, I don’t really recall the press springing into action on this one. The kidnapping happened like 3 weeks ago and it is only now really getting a bunch of media attention. That’s a rather slow spring in my view.

    Glad to see theoreticalgrrrl @18 already expressing a similar point.

  26. jesse says

    Ophelia — I wasn’t referring to you, but the general sense I was getting from the comments about the way the story was covered. While the damsel in distress trope is a real one, a quick look at the local media on the ground shows that it wasn’t like Boko Haram got no attention until a few weeks ago — the locals have been on it for a while. SO saying “This wasn’t a big story” is simply wrong, just as the killings of the boys was plenty big if you watched Al-Jazeera Africa. So I would say that Rothman’s premises are kind of off at best. His assertion that the atrocity of burning the boys “went unremarked” in the popular media might be true for people living where we do — but it sure as hell wasn’t unremarked in Nigeria, or from Al-Jazeera –

    That took me a few seconds. Maybe Rothman isn’t aware that there are other news outlets besides American ones, you know? Even leaving that out I looked up the news overage and found a half-dozen hits when the attack was staged back then, from the Guardian and the BBC, and the stories were picked p by CBS and Huffpo. After reading Rothman’s piece I am less sure what he means when he is defining “paying attention.” By whom?

    The meme that “nothing was done” has also been around for a while now but honestly, when I think about it I wonder how often we’re all really saying “nothing was done that we know about that involves centering Western actions and troops.” and “Attention wasn’t paid by the media we consider important.” That’s what the blog I linked to got me thinking about, hard.

    @Question Mark — the point is that the Nigerians might know what the situation is there better than we do. The non-victimized Nigerians aren’t saying “do nothing” — they never have. They have said “here are some things we need to do and it might not involve UN troops.” There’s a huge difference. Now, lord knows there are all kinds of problems with corruption and the somewhat fragmented nature of the Nigerian state. But just because we don’t (as people in Europe or the US) see our favorite heroes jumping in to the rescue doesn’t mean that nothing is happening, either. Nigerians have mobilized, and my quick (and long overdue) perusal of some of those outlets shows there has been a lot of work in-country.

    These are chosen almost at random, but I think it behooves all of us to pay more attention to the people there, and their media outlets, and by extension their voices.

    By the way the Nigerian government has asked for help, and there are US and UK military advisors headed in. The Chinese have also offered assistance.

  27. theoreticalgrrrl says

    The women of Nigeria have taken action and brought this to international attention. They aren’t “damsels in distress”

    Let there be no doubt: The reason the United States is sending help, Nigeria is accepting it and the entire world is paying attention is that the women of Nigeria demanded it.

    Nigerian women from the town of Chibok in the northeastern Borno state, the mothers, sisters, relatives and friends of the schoolgirls, launched their protests and set off the #BringBackOurGirls campaign that swept away weeks of international apathy.

    At a rally in Abuja, one woman held up a sign that read “Can Anyone Hear Me?” The long-delayed answer was a most emphatic “Yes,” which resonated across the oceans and echoed in the Nigerian presidential palace…”

    “It is a movement that begins with the grassroots, moves into cyberspace and powers its way into the halls of power.”

  28. S Mukherjee says

    I’d ask Noah Rothman to see that there are always some cases that grab the attention of the public and then go on to galvanise people into taking action to change society or laws.

    Savita Halapannavar was almost certainly not the first woman to be left to die because of anti-abortion stances of the Irish government. Why did her case become so prominent and spark such an outcry?

    Malalai Yousefzai was not the first schoolgirl to be targeted by the Taliban. Why did she become so well-known?

    Matthew Shepard was not the first victim of a gay-bashing. Why did his case touch a chord with so many people?

    The unnamed victim of the gang-rape on a bus in New Delhi in India was not the first such victim. Why did her case spur the nation into re-examining attitudes and laws about sexual assault?

    All this is because sometimes something happens that engages our thoughts in such a manner that we can’t shrug it off, can’t forget. We feel that we have to do something about it. That’s one of the ways social change goes ahead.
    If this abduction case results in government and international forces putting an end to the power of Boko Haram, then in the future both boys and girls, men and women in Nigeria will be better off.

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