Questioning the Narrative of Western Media Bias

In early January 2014, there were attacks on the newspaper offices of Charlie Hebdo in Paris and the village of Baga in northeastern Nigeria. The attacks, occurring just two days apart, garnered wildly different coverage in the media, with the attacks in France dominating the international news for days, while the attacks in Nigeria barely made the news. Many simply dismissed this as western media bias against Africa; however, the international coverage actually mirrored, and in many cases, exceeded the coverage in Nigeria. Far from overlooked, the Nigerian government and media bear significant responsibility for the limited international media coverage that Nigeria received during this timeframe. Numerous domestic, economic, security, and political reasons explain this dearth of news. These explanations all underscore the complex, fragile, and often corrupt relationship that exists in Nigeria between the state, the media, and the people and what happens when the state has a stake in the media not reporting certain stories. Furthermore, it illustrates the relationship between local media, regional media, and the international media showing how the framing of a story influences public opinion. These factors create a cycle of news that continually marginalizes African stories and perpetuates a myth that the international media remains biased towards anything not western oriented.

Debunking the narrative

While the idea that the western media ignores or downplays news from Nigeria is appealing because it fits into the narrative that the West only sees Africa as a continent of disease, poverty, and famine, evidence from numerous media outlets suggests that it is not true. Boko Haram has received a significant amount of western media attention since 2011, with many outlets giving it significant attention.[1] For example, from March 2011 to March 2015 the Wall Street Journal featured 377 articles that featured Nigeria and Boko Haram.[2] During the same time, The New York Times featured over 900 articles, The Washington Post over 300.[3] The results for news websites are comparable and point to a western media that is not ignoring Boko Haram. CNN featured over 1600 stories that mentioned Boko Haram over the past few years, Fox News ran over 900 stories, NPR featured a little over 200 stories, and MSNBC presented 150 stories.[4] In addition, weekly publications like Time, the Atlantic, Newsweek, and The Economist all featured hundreds of stories on Boko Haram since 2011.[5] The exposure is not limited to English language media, as the Frankfurter Allgemeine, Le Monde, and El Mundo all featured hundreds of stories in German, French, and Spanish as well.[6] As these outlets show, the western media does not shy away from stories on African subjects, especially those instances of terrorism that are familiar and alluring to western audiences.

In contrast to the international media, the local Nigerian media often overlooks stories centering on terrorism or military engagements in the North. The state-owned Nigerian News Agency (NNA) last ran a story that featured Boko Haram four months earlier when they discussed the Nigerian Trade Association’s pleasure with the ceasefire between the Federal Government and Boko Haram.[7] While the results from the archives of the major commercial media outlets show that Boko Haram features prominently in their news cycle, the stories are often limited in scope, conditional on information from the government and military, or heavily reliant on information already presented through international media like Agence France-Presse (AFP), Reuters, and BBC. This Day Live features stories that are largely supportive of the federal governments actions against Boko Haram, often touting headlines that detail the latest success of military operations.[8] Days after the Baga attacks, This Day Live ran a story entitled, “APC, PDP, Commend Jonathan’s Morale-boosting Maiduguri Visit,” which detailed the morale boosting visit with soldiers that president Jonathan conducted. The article also included comments on the simultaneously run CNN story that discussed the low morale of soldiers quoting government officials stating that, “the CNN story on the Nigerian military was concocted.”[9] Similarly, The Sun News features stories that are supportive of government actions against Boko Haram, rarely running stories that are critical of the government.[10] Meanwhile, The Guardian features a balance of stories that strive to present the whole picture, but they are rarely local press stories.[11] Out of the major news outlets, only Vanguard and Punch presented a significant amount of stories dealing with Boko Haram.[12][13] These records reveal the limited, locally produced objective media coverage that exists within Nigeria regarding Boko Haram’s activities and the Nigerian governments response to those activities.

A number of diverse arguments arose in the weeks after the attacks in Paris and Baga that explained the unequal media coverage. Some suggested that the attack on free speech resonated with western audiences, particularly in Europe and the United States. Certainly, the notion that the Charlie Hebdo attacks were an attack on free speech struck a chord in the West, as free speech is one of the inherent rights enshrined in many Western societies.[14] However, the attack on the citizens of Baga was an attack on human life and liberty, equally important rights within Western societies. Therefore, the targets do not explain the difference in coverage. Others suggested that part of the problem lies in the international communities nebulous definition of terrorism. According to Max Abrahams, the frequency of Boko Haram’s attacks means “people stop thinking of it as terrorism and they start thinking of it as a civil way or an insurgency.”[15] After all, an insurgency in a West African country fits the narrative of the war-torn continent and hardly represents a threat to western security. The suggestion inherent in his comment is that if terrorism was a weekly activity in Paris that coverage would decline. While this seems implausible on the surface, one need look no further than the crisis in Ukraine and the associated media coverage or even the war in Afghanistan, both of which faded from the headlines after a quick resolution seemed unlikely. However, the Chibok kidnappings highlight that media coverage can become laser-focused rather quickly, even in the most intractable of conflicts. Lastly, some suggested that this was merely a long-standing western media bias[16], but evidence suggests that the media is paying increasingly more attention to African issues in the aftermath of the global war on terror. While each of these explanations hints at some truth, the disparity in media coverage is more complex than any one of these explanations.

Complex problems, complex relationships

This proclivity to assume that the limited media coverage of African stories is the result of apathy towards Africa belies the much more complex situation. Matthew Baum and Phillip Potter in their attempt to define the causal relationships between the public, the state, and the media acknowledge that foreign actors and the “facts on the ground” both complicate the relationship.[17] The western public may indeed have a myopic view that negatively (and disproportionately) affects interest in — and media coverage of — African affairs, but that explanation relegates local African media outlets to the status of passive bystander. This is not the case in Nigeria, where numerous media outlets — print and broadcast — exist alongside laws to protect freedom of information and the independence of the media.[18] The media in Nigeria are an active participant in the affairs of the state and as such, represent an element of the foreign actor Baum and Potter discuss in their causal relationship diagram.[19] Likewise, the “facts on the ground” complicate the situation for western media, as the relationship between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram suggests a complexity not easily distilled into a news story. Despite the sustained media coverage, the complexity and magnitude of the problem is often inadequately portrayed in the international media, undermining the western public’s ability to grasp the gravity of the situation and influence future coverage or demand government action.

The issues on the ground

Locally known as Jama’atul Ahlul Sunna wa Liddawati wal Jihad, Boko Haram is a radical Islamic sect operating in northern Nigeria. Believing that “non-believers” should not rule Muslims, Boko Haram seeks to impose Sharia law on the entire country.[20] Active since 2009, Boko Haram now counts as one of the deadliest terror groups in the world. From 2009–2013, the National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (START) reports that Boko Haram conducted 808 attacks, resulting in 3666 fatalities, which accounted for 6 percent of terrorist attacks globally.[21] These statistics will surely rise to well above 6000 casualties, as many of Boko Haram’s deadliest attacks occurred in 2014 and 2015. In addition to the sheer number and volatility of these incidents, their attacks have been brutal and often directly targeted western interests. When looked at through this lens, it seems unbelievable that the western media is not running this as front-page news daily. However, when viewed through the lens of a complex and multidimensional problem, it becomes more understandable that the western media is covering the conflict, just not adequately. If citizens are, as Baum and Potter suggest, at a informational disadvantage vis-à-vis leadership elites and they compensate by employing heuristic cues, then the decontextualized media coverage of Boko Haram is particularly damaging.[22] It also offers insight into why the government of Nigeria would seek to limit information regarding their campaign to eradicate Boko Haram. A poorly framed story can do more damage than good.

Boko Haram is not simply the result of the socio-economic ills so often cited as the root causes of terrorism; the group highlights a number of deep-rooted problems that exit within Nigeria. It is correct that the north is generally poorer than the south with a majority of the economic infrastructure developed around Abuja and the southern port city of Lagos, but poor governance, corruption, ethno-religious conflict, and military human rights violations have all played a significant role in creating Boko Haram.[23] Data from the World Bank’s World Governance Indicator reveals that Nigeria falls below the average for Sub-Saharan Africa in government effectiveness, rule of law, and political stability.[24] In addition, as of 2012, the Transparency International Corruption Index ranked Nigeria as the 35th most corrupt country in the world.[25] The ethnic and religious make-up of the country further exacerbates these problems. Of the 36 states that comprise the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the states in the north are primarily Sunni Muslim and the southern states are primarily Christian. In addition, twelve of the nineteen states that constitute northern Nigeria practice some degree of Sharia law, meaning that a full third of Nigeria is currently under some form of Sharia law. The poor governance and corruption, coupled with the ethnic and religious conflicts has resulted in many questionable tactics by the military in their quest to defeat Boko Haram. According to many scholars, it was the extrajudicial killing of Boko Haram’s original leader, Mohammed Yusuf, which ignited today’s deadly conflict.[26] Consequently, the terrorism of Boko Haram results from socio-economic issues that are intensified by poor governance, unprofessional security forces, and, most importantly, ethno-religious conflicts.

The complexity of ethno-religious violence requires significantly more explanation than western media outlets typically allot to Nigeria. This complexity highlights a dichotomy that underpins the subjective framing of a situation. While framing the story within the context of a violent Islamist extremism movement allows the government to align itself with the global campaign against terrorism, it also allows western audiences to package the story into their pre-conceived ideas of Sub-Saharan Africa and view Nigeria as a characteristically violent African country. Studies suggest that when the mainstream media uses metaphorical frames and rhetorical representations to cover a conflict they risk decontextualizing the conflict and overlooking the reasons for the conflict.[27] This phenomenon of de-contextualization was summed up by The Washington Post covering the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls when they wrote, “Most people jumping at the chance to use the hashtag #bringbackourgirls had little to no knowledge of the history and politics of the country in which they obliquely advocated foreign intervention. And they had no clue that many Nigerians not residing in America are opposed to US intervention due to a history of the negative effects of US foreign aid and meddling there.”[28] Likewise, the problems with subjective framing are highlighted in the Time magazine article about a French family kidnapped in Cameroon, which carried the salacious headline “French Family’s Cameroon Kidnapping Stokes Fears of a Pan-African Islamist War.”[29] The article went on to state that, “the kidnapping raises fears of renewed aggression against French and other Western targets as the ongoing push against Islamist fighters in Africa continues.”[30] As these stories show the phenomenon of de-contextualization and framing in the international media can have a demonstrable impact on the security, politics, and economy of a country.

The May 2014 kidnapping of over 200 schoolgirls sparked global outrage, international support, and sustained media attention and exemplifies the impact of media attention on a country. As often happens, leaders seize upon times of international solidarity to engender support for an otherwise local cause and this case was no different. President Jonathan leveraged the international interest in the kidnappings, showing the palpable effect that media attention can have on a country’s security. Because of the media attention and the impact it had on the public, the U.S. sent 80 military personnel to neighboring Chad to support efforts to find the schoolgirls.[31] However, the same story also highlights the negative impact that international media attention has upon domestic politics. The international attention made President Jonathan’s delayed domestic reaction to the kidnappings seem cynical and out of touch, something his critics and the public remarked on extensively. African leaders also understand the potentially negative correlation between media attention and economics. Take for example, the case of Kenya and the 2013 Westgate Mall attack. In the aftermath of the attack, tourism fell across the country and throughout Eastern Africa and experts expect it to remain low until 2018.[32] A similar situation occurred during the recent Ebola outbreak in West Africa, which provoked widespread calls for flight cancellations across the region, even though cases were limited to a few countries. While these instances show the potential of the international media to affect Nigeria, the case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab (aka the underwear bomber) illustrates the true seriousness of the situation that many African politicians face when dealing with the international media. In 2009, Abdulmutallab attempted to blow up Northwest Airlines Flight 253, which resulted in a severe backlash towards travelling Nigerians and the labeling of Nigeria as a “terrorist nation.”[33] The situation figures prominently into President Jonathan’s political career, as he was Vice President at the time, and likely influence his relationship with the international media. As Baum and Potter suggest, “The media play the crucial role of collecting, framing, and distributing information — the key market commodity. Without question, leaders place great value on controlling this commodity.”[34]

The local impact

The view of media as a tool for controlling information, coupled with the impact of framing and the complexity of ethno-religious violence provide the backdrop for the limited media coverage of Boko Haram. While the framework of the media attention surrounding the Baga attacks bears striking similarity to the Chibok kidnappings, the diplomatic efforts to garner international support for countering Boko Haram were noticeably absent. In fact, the opposite was true as the government abruptly cancelled a bi-lateral U.S. counter-terrorism training exercise that was underway, arguably something that would come in handy countering Boko Haram.[35] Moreover, President Jonathan officially launched his re-election campaign on 8 January, and according to reports from the news outlets in attendance, he made no mention of the massacre in Baga and made little mention of security issues in general.[36] In contrast to the Chibok attacks where President Jonathan appeared unprepared for the international media attention, after the Baga attacks he appeared disinterested in any media attention. If media publicity is the oxygen that supports terrorism, then it supports the notion that the Nigerian government, in an effort to ensure public safety, should prevent the media from reporting on Boko Haram. This argument is apparent in data that demonstrates that when a country is embroiled in a conflict, freedom of information is often one of the first casualties.[37] There a variety of reasons for this negative correlation, from the safety and security of journalists to the governments concern for national and operational security. However, in Nigeria it appears that the negative correlation is also the result of government officials quashing local and international media coverage.

Politically, there is little doubt about the profound impact that Boko Haram has had on the Nigerian government. In early February, the Nigerian government officials announced the postponement of the presidential and legislative elections scheduled for 14 February.[38] Ostensibly, this delay allows time for international military forces to consolidate and secure areas under direct threat from Boko Haram forces. However, many in the opposition party are claiming that Goodluck Jonathan is delaying the elections as a political ploy.[39] Likely, it is a combination of both, as military forces were unlikely to be ready for elections, but the incumbent party could use the extra time to continue passing out voter registration cards. In addition to the domestic impact, the Nigerian governments handling of Boko Haram — characterized by brutality and extrajudicial tactics — has put it at odds with many western organizations.[40] The human rights violations frequently associated with the Nigerian military are detrimental to countering terrorism and risk undermining the legitimacy of government actions within the international community. News stories, like the one recently featured on Britain’s Channel 4, detail the questionable tactics of Nigeria’s security forces, raising the question of whether the campaign to defeat Boko Haram is so violent that it constitutes war crimes.[41] In addition to these challenges, there is the endemic corruption and patrimonialism that plagues all aspects of Nigerian society, to include the media.

The Nigerian government has a complex relationship with the media and despite the robust press and freedoms guaranteed under law, there are some notable challenges to the creation of truly open, press that wields influence over the society and the government. There are a number of media outlets across the country, but their diversity and independence is lacking. In 1988, the government established the Nigerian Press Council (NPC), which oversees the conduct of journalists and deals with complaints from journalists against individuals or organizations.[42] As a self-described “buffer between the media, government, and the public,” the NPC is an attempt to maintain an independent, professional media. There is also the 2011 Freedom of Information (FOI) Act that guarantees public access to information that is in the custody of the government.[43] The act, signed into law by President Jonathan, went along way towards making information available to the public. However, like many laws, significant provisions of the law are open to interpretation. This explains why, despite this framework, Nigeria still ranks low on a number of indices that measure press freedom. Critics maintain that commercial media outlets retain links to the elite political establishment and that a host of restrictive laws prevents true media independence.[44] Therefore, “While press freedom is guaranteed under Nigerian law, in reality the media face retribution that is episodic, unpredictable, and very often arbitrary, said John Campbell, a former U.S. ambassador to Nigeria.[45] There is also the notion of protocol journalism, where the media deliberately shelters elite public officials from discomforting questions in return for favors or because of a shared ethnic background.[46]

Referred to as the “brown envelope syndrome” because of the brown envelopes that are used to deliver bribes, corruption in Nigeria’s media circles undermines the ability to be objective and act as a watchdog.[47] Coupled with protocol journalism — an expression of patrimonialism — the relationship between the state, the media, and the people degrades when the media has reason to not report certain stories. Situations that a state may see as warranting such censorship ostensibly center on notions of state security; although, there are times when the reasoning is more nefarious. Reporters Without Borders “is alarmed about the glaring gaps in domestic news coverage in Nigeria in the run-up to the 14 February presidential election, especially in the northeastern state of Borno.”[48] Furthermore, reporters are often targeted by both Boko Haram and Nigerian security forces and can expect little protection if recent history is any indicator.[49] According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), 19 reporters that covered politics and the military have been murdered in Nigeria since 1992, with none of the murders ever solved.[50] The CPJ’s 2014 Global Impunity Index listed Nigeria as the second worst African country after Somalia in terms punishing journalist murders.[51] In addition, beatings, harassment, and other violent attacks against reporters occur regularly throughout Nigeria. In August of 2014, Nigerian soldiers reportedly stormed the offices of the Daily Trust after the paper published a story alleging that Nigerian soldiers refused orders to fight Boko Haram until they received better weapons.[52]Another telling sign of government interference within the press is the international media coverage of the pending elections. The Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa (FCASA) recorded significant problems with journalists getting visas issued in time to cover the elections.[53] Recent data published by the International Press Centre (IPC) in Lagos cites 21 violations against journalist and crewmembers in Nigeria in just November and December.[54]


Considering the difficulty of reporting in a conflict zone and the complexity of a story like Boko Haram, the domestic media plays a critical role in the framing and promotion of a story. In the case of Nigeria, endemic corruption, political interference, and lack of security for journalists have all combined to prevent the domestic media from assuming its role of watchdog. In turn, this inability to get robust domestic news prevents international media’s attempts at accurately framing the story so western audiences can correctly comprehend the situation. This poor comprehension keeps the stories from garnering front-page attention, creating a situation where it appears that western media ignores African stories. If Nigerian news is ever going to rival news from Paris, it must begin with the development of a truly objective media that is free of government interference and pressure.

[1] For the purposes of this article Western media is media originating from the U.S. and Europe.

[2] The Wall Street Journal archives, accessed February 25, 2015,

[3] New York Times archives. accessed February 25, 2015,; The Washington Post archives,

[4] CNN, accessed February 24, 2015,; National Public Radio; MSNBC archives,

[5] Time Magazine archives, accessed February 23, 2015,; The Atlantic archives,; Newsweek archives,; The Economist archives,

[6] Frankfurter Allgemeine,

[7] Nigerian National News Agency,

[8] This Day live,

[9] Onyebuchi Ezigbo, Senator Iroegbu, Chuks Okocha and Paul Obi, “APC, PDP, Commend Jonathan’s Morale-boosting Maiduguri Visit,” This Day Live, January 17, 2015.

[10] The Sun,

[11] guardian news

[12] The Punch,

[13] Vanguard,

[14] Charlotte Alter. “Why Charlie Hebdo Gets More Attention Than Boko Haram,” Time, January 15, 2015.

[15]N’Jaili Rhee. “Why Boko Haram is Killing Thousands with Little Media Coverage,” January 19, 2015.

[16] Nick Harvey. “Why do some conflicts get more media coverage than others?,” The New Internationalist, 01 September 2012.

[17] Matthew A. Baum and Philip B.K. Potter, “The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis,” Annual Review Political Science 2008. 11:41.

[18] “A Baseline Assessment of the Nigerian Media as Forum for Citizen Engagement in the 2011 Elections,” United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

[19] Matthew A. Baum and Philip B.K. Potter, “The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis,” Annual Review Political Science 2008. 11:41.

[20] Farouk Chothia, “Who are Nigeria’s Boko Haram Islamists?” BBC Africa, January 21, 2015.

[21] National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism. University of Maryland.

[22] Matthew A. Baum and Philip B.K. Potter, “The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis,” Annual Review Political Science 2008. 11:42.

[23] Marc-Antoine Pérouse de Montclos, “Nigeria’s Interminable Insurgency? Addressing the Boko Haram Crisis,” Chatham House, Africa Programme, (September 2014), 10.

[24] The World Bank. World Governance Indicators.

[25] Transparency International. Transparency International Corruption Index. Accessed 03 March, 2015.

[26] “Curbing Violence in Nigeria (II): The Boko Haram Insurgency,” Africa Report №216

03 Apr 2014.

[27] Erin Steuter and Deborah Wills. “‘The Vermin Have Struck Again’: Dehumanizing the Enemy in Post 9/11 Media Representations,” Media, War & Conflict 2010, 3: 165.

[28] Rebecca Teich, “Three Big Problems with Facebook Activism,” Big Think Blog,

[29] Bruce Crumley, “French Family’s Cameroon Kidnapping Stokes Fears of a Pan-African Islamist War,” 20 February 2013.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Scott Neuman, “U.S. Military In Chad To Aid Search For Missing Schoolgirls,” National Public Radio Online, May 21, 2014,

[32] Frank Mutulu,“Rising Insecurity Hurting Kenya’s Tourism Investments,” AFK Insider, 01 December 2014.

[33] Susan Njanji, “Nigeria Rapidly Becoming Like Somalia,” The Telegraph, January 8, 2010.

[34] Matthew A. Baum and Philip B.K. Potter, “The Relationships Between Mass Media, Public Opinion, and Foreign Policy: Toward a Theoretical Synthesis,” Annual Review Political Science 2008. 11:39–65 (page 49).

[35] “Nigeria cancels US military training to fight Boko Haram,” AFP, December 1, 2014.

[36] “Nigerian President Begins Re-election Campaign,” AFP Lagos, January 8, 2015.

[37] Reporters Without Borders, World Press Freedom Index 2014, 4.

[38] “Nigeria to Postpone Elections to Fight Boko Haram,” The Guardian, February 7, 2015.

[39] James Butty, “Nigeria’s Opposition Rejects Any Election Delay,” Voice of America, January 27, 2015.

[40] Adam Nossiter, “Massacare in Nigeria Spurs Outcry Over Military Tactics,” The New York Times, April 29, 2013.

[41] “Nigeria’s Hidden War,” Channel 4 News,

[42] Nigerian Press Council Act, 1988.

[43] Felicia Kemi Segun “The Law of Freedom of Information in Nigeria,” Adepetun Caxton-Martins Agbor & Segun, Lagos.

[44] “Mapping Digital Media: Nigeria,” Open Society Foundation, 7.

[45] Newsweek, “Nigeria’s Free-Wheeling Media Fears Crackdown over Boko Haram Battle,”

[46] Mvendaga Jibo and Antonia T. Okoosi-Simbine, “The Nigerian Media: An Assessment of its Role in Achieving Transparent and Accountable Government in the Fourth Republic,” Nordic Journal of African Studies 12(2): 180–195 (2003), 187.

[47] Aderogba Adeyemi, PhD., “Nigerian Media and Corrupt Practices: The Need for Paradigm Shift,” European Scientific Journal January 2013 edition vol.9, №1, 122–24.

[48] Reporters Without Borders, “Information Increasingly a Rare Commodity in Nigeria,” February 5, 2015.,47558.html.

[49] Alastair Sloane, “Nigeria: Journalists Targeted in ‘War on Terror’” X Index, June 3, 2014.

[50] Committee to Protect Journalists,

[51] Elisabeth Witchel, “Getting Away with Murder,” Committee to Protect Journalists, April 2014.

[52] Micahel Olugbode, “Army Quizzes Daily Trust Managers Over Unfavourable Report,” This Day Live, 22 August 2014.

[53] Foreign Correspondents Association of Southern Africa. January1, 2015.

[54] “Summary Report of the Monitoring and Documentation of Incidents of Attacks on Journalists in November & December, 2015,” International Press Centre Lagos.

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