Bring Back Our Journalists

Foreign Policy

The sloppy, pop-humanitarian coverage of the Boko Haram cease-fire-that-wasn’t isn’t just bad journalism — it’s a missed opportunity.

BY Lauren Wolfe   
There was never any cease-fire. War in Nigeria will not end anytime soon and the hundreds of schoolgirls from the northeastern town of Chibok kidnapped back in April will not — not now, maybe not ever — be coming home. So announces the leader of Boko Haram, the militant group that has brought all this havoc to the country, in a video released Oct. 31.

Standing amid scrub and dirt, the group’s leader, Abubakar Shekau, reads from papers, standing in front of a line of trucks and men, all clad in dull olive-brown. “We have not made a ceasefire with anyone,” he says. “We did not negotiate with anyone.” As for the more than 200 schoolgirls: “We married them off. They are in their marital homes,” Shekau taunts, according to a translation by the Abuja-based newspaper Premium Times. “If the women of Chibok, I mean the mothers of the Chibok schoolgirls and their fathers, if you know the condition your daughters are in today it could lead some to convert to Islam and some to die from grief.”

After weeks of speculation over whether the supposed cease-fire that promised the release of the girls was real, the missive quashed hopes of a suddenly happy ending.

Ever since the girls were first kidnapped and Twitter exploded with hashtag activism (#BringBackOurGirls), the eyes of those who might normally ignore conflicts in faraway African countries have been on Nigeria. Intermittently. And then maybe not for a while, as the story had no new developments and, thus, no striking headlines. People, it seems, lose interest in staying until the end when it doesn’t come quickly enough, activist Gloria Steinem told me in August. But this story was, and remains, click bait. Something about the confluence of such a brazen act — girls taken from a school that should have been a safe haven — combined with their gender, combined with the sheer number taken, combined with the mystery that surrounds their whereabouts caught media and citizens’ attention.

No wonder the promise that the girls would be released was media and hashtag activism gold. Could it be…good news?

When the government of Nigerian President Good-luck Jonathan announced the deal on Oct. 17, the news hit the wires and spread across the Internet with breathless tweets and hopeful Facebook posts. While many, if not most, media outlets ran stories with caveats about the lack of confirmation by Boko Haram of the cease-fire and imminent release of the girls, a few took hope and ran off the deep end with it. “Finally, Nigeria’s kidnapped schoolgirls are coming home,” read one particularly egregious headline from Mother Jones. The story was little more than a brief recap of the wires, but its headline offered unwarranted hope that was naïve at best, and at worst irresponsible. The headline on the story now reads “Will Nigeria’s Kidnapped Schoolgirls Come Home?” and has an Oct. 24 update on the lack of a cease-fire up top. (The other headline lives on in perpetuity in this tweet.) Lesser-known outlets ran headlines in a similar vein: “Finally: The Kidnapped Nigerian Schoolgirls Will Be Released” and “Nigeria’s Kidnapped Girls Are Coming Home.”

Anyone who knows anything at all about Boko Haram, however, found the cease-fire intensely suspicious, and within a day or two, many media outlets began expressing skepticism. Counter-terrorism expert Andrew Noakes wrote on Oct. 19 for African Arguments that it “looks very possible that the cease-fire deal is a product of political intrigue rather than a reflection of reality.” He’d been given a related e-mail that “bore all the hallmarks of a fake — written in English, the language of the insurgency’s Western enemies, and referring throughout to ‘Boko Haram,’ a name the group itself eschews in favour of Jama’atu Ahlis Sunna Lidda’Awati Wal-Jihad (People Committed to the Propagation of the Prophet’s Teachings and Jihad).”

Two days after the initial announcement, the Internet was laden with doubts over the credentials of the alleged Boko Haram negotiator, named Danladi Ahmadu, who no one seemed to think had any connection to Boko Haram (something Shekau would confirm in his Oct. 31 video).

“A little more caution on the part of media was absolutely required given how many so-called potential deals have been aired and then faded away since the girls were abducted,” says Adotei Akwei, Amnesty International USA’s managing director of government relations. “I think people are still hoping for some kind of resolution and are willing to grab at anything.”

The most egregious spin was confined to headlines and didn’t necessarily trickle down into the stories, but media experts still say damage is done. “If a headline says the girls are returning, but the story says this is probably not going to happen, they’ve essentially undermined their trust relationship with you,” says media ethicist Kelly McBride, the Poynter Institute’s vice president of academic programs.

To be sure, the phenomenon of hype and oversimplification is not confined to #BringBackOurGirls. Just look at Ebola: The night Doctors Without Borders volunteer physician Craig Spencer landed in Bellevue Hospital, everyone seemed to suddenly know exactly how this complex disease spreads and why. Or consider the Islamic State: Twitter knows how to fix this scourge. Armchair expertise, clearly, has a far reach.

What was missed, in all the fervor of the story of the missing girls, was a chance to take on a murkier, more challenging story — which the Chibok tragedy has been from the beginning. “Much as we might wish this to be a single issue with a clear solution, it isn’t, and it cannot be. It never was,” Nigerian-American writer Teju Cole tweeted about the schoolgirls back on May 8. The previous day, his frustration at naive Western views on how to fix Nigeria was barely veiled: “For four years, Nigerians have tried to understand these homicidal monsters. Your new interest (thanks) simplifies nothing, solves nothing.”

The pop-humanitarianism Cole was criticizing has real-life implications for those living in these complex conflict areas. The initial #BringBackOurGirls campaign galvanized global response. Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Fla.) said in July that she thought the campaign was “lighting a fire” under Nigerian President Good-luck Jonathan to find the girls and bring them to safety, but six months later, what good did it really do? Did it shine a light on the well-documented corruption of the Nigerian government and its army, or funnel resources to attack the problems that let Boko Haram thrive? Back in August, Akwei told me that the Nigerian government’s characterization of Boko Haram being “under control” led to everyone “sort of backing off, saying the army is big enough and strong enough.”

This is not to say that these hashtag movements and the media coverage surrounding them can’t do good. Outcry over the plight of the Yazidi people trapped on Mount Sinjar led to U.S. intervention to help save them from the brutal hands of Islamic State. On the flip side, however, massive attention paid to the “Kony 2012” video campaign did little more than fuel a total misunderstanding of a complicated, ongoing war in central Africa — and brought little aid to the regional fights that truly matter at this point. “They say it’s ‘not about politics and it’s not about the economy’ [in the video], but it’s actually all about politics and the economy,” said New York University professor Tavia Nyong’o in March 2012, after the video made a splash. What’s happened since? More corruption, more poverty, more warring in the region, little attention to the corrupt politics of a place like the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose army is known to be pillaging and raping the countryside.

A phone call or two, or even a few clicks around the web, probably should have been enough to realize how flimsy the story about the cease-fire was. There is no solid information on how many girls remain in Boko Haram’s possession, says Akwei. Originally, police reported that 276 were taken. A few dozen are said to have escaped. Others are said to have died or been sold, some across the borders to Chad or Cameroon. Why even assume the 219 girls (according to most recent counts) are still in the hands of Boko Haram at all? This not-knowing is yet another reason for more caution, says Akwei: “Until the girls are in the arms of their parents nothing that is announced should be taken as more then just a rumor.” The feel-good aspect of the story, however, missed by a wide margin the complexity of not only this particular kidnapping, but the politics of Nigeria and the ongoing atrocities committed by an unpredictable terrorist group.

Journalists have an important responsibility in these situations. It’s not about applauding little steps toward peace in an attempt to reach it. It’s about giving all available information to audiences, and giving it in context, even if that means casting doubt on a hopeful moment — and especially then, says McBride. “I think skepticism is always good,” she says. “To the extent that you are taking a statement or a fact and surrounding it with other statements or facts that give the consumer a broader chance to determine more than they receive from that initial statement, that’s what good journalism is.”

In a time when children are being kidnapped from Iraq to Syria to Nigeria, among numerous other tragedies, accuracy in reporting — and presentation — is key: Good journalism is one crucial tool in the small box that global policymakers have to keep themselves informed of ongoing human rights violations. It can’t guarantee a happy ending, but, after all, that’s not what the press is here for.