What Foreign Affairs?

Hundreds of people were killed when a cataclysmic blast blew up an ammunition depot at the Ikeja Military Cantonment, north of Lagos, Nigeria in January. It's not your fault if you know little about it. The U.S. media shamefully underplayed the story.

That's not uncommon. Africa too often is given too little attention. It's like Africans don't count.

"Americans have very poor foreign affairs knowledge," says Doyinsola Abiola, president of the Johannesburg-based Foundation for African Media Excellence (FAME) . She earned her doctorate in mass communications and political science at the University of Wisconsin. "In fact, I think they think the world begins and ends here," she said in a recent interview while visiting the United States.

Abiola lives in Ikeja and the blast shattered the windows and doors of her home. Through FAME -- which is getting help from the Virginia-based Freedom Forum -- she plans to focus on improving journalism in Africa. The Nigeria story demonstrates the dire improvement needed in this country's coverage of Africa. And it's just the latest example: the death toll from the war in the Democratic Republic of Congo, genocidal attacks in Burundi, and famine in the Horn of Africa are just some of the stories that received too little play in the U.S. media.

There might seem to be an inconsistency in the criticism of people like me who complain about African coverage. We groan that news organizations give too much coverage to bad news, then moan when the media don't give things like the explosion prominent play.

The problem is the superficial nature of the coverage and its lack of context and balance. There are far too many important African topics the American media ignore in favor of disaster stories. Compared to the coverage of catastrophes in Europe and Israel, for example, the coverage of African events tends to diminish the value of black life.

Newsday did a survey of how the television news operations handled the Nigerian explosion story during several days following the munitions dump blast. The findings were disgraceful.

"The catastrophe barely rated a mention on the 'CBS Evening News' and ABC's 'World News Tonight.' NBC's 'Nightly News' gave the story exactly... nothing," said Newsday, which added that there were 11 mentions of the tragedy across all of the three networks' daytime broadcasts.

Of course, it's easy for a newspaper to dump on television news. It's such an inviting target. But newspapers weren't much better on this story.

Consider the Chicago Tribune. During its news meeting the day after the blast, only one person, James Warren, the managing editor for features, wanted to put the explosion on the front page. At the time of the meeting, the confirmed death toll was at least 200 and soon reached beyond 1,000.

"How many Africans have to die for the story to go on Page One," was Warren's point, as related in a column by Don Wycliff, the Tribune's public editor.

Warren noted that the newspaper regularly gives front page play to just one death in the Middle East. "As if to underscore Warren's point," Wycliff wrote, "on that very day, Monday, Jan. 28, the Tribune had a page one story with the headline, 'Woman bomber kills 2 in Jerusalem.' One of the two was herself."

Wycliff (a fellow Poynter Institute fellow) did a service by exposing the inner workings of his paper. He acknowledges he was among those who disagreed with Warren. Thoughtful and deliberate as Wycliff is, he also is wrong in this case.

Wrong, but not alone. The Tribune wasn't the only major paper to play down the Ikeja story. If the most influential papers in the nation -- The New York Times, The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times -- are any indication, and they are, giving the story too little attention was the rule.

A search in Nexis, a news database, shows none of those papers carried a page-one story about the explosion. All of them found other things more important, as did the Tribune. Wycliff listed the seven stories his paper put out front instead of one on the Nigerian disaster:

-- President Bush's refusal to turn over energy task force documents to the General Accounting Office.

-- A decision not to seek the death penalty for a convicted murderer.

-- The indictment of a politically connected Chicago insurance executive on insurance and mail fraud charges.

-- Bush's meeting with visiting Afghan leader Hamid Karzai.

-- Illinois' selection as a test site for a prescription drug program.

-- The governor's reversal of his decision to close an educational facility, following a Tribune story on the students

-- University of Chicago political scientist Michael Dawson's decision to move to Harvard.

Each of these stories, except the last, Wycliff wrote, "in some way and to some degree implicate the reader as citizen. Each involves an action or decision by a public official that readers need to know about to properly discharge their duties as citizens... effective citizenship must always be first on the list of considerations" as to what goes on page one.

That's certainly debatable. Certainly, basic humanitarian concerns should sometimes trump citizenship matters. Clearly the hundreds dead in Nigeria should have mattered more than they did to American media simply because they are fellow human beings. But even using Wycliff's notion of effective citizenship, the Lagos story still should have rated a front-page spot before some of those chosen by the Tribune.

For reasons of pure self-interest, Nigeria is an important concern to the United States. The West African nation is a major U.S. oil supplier. At the behest of Washington, Nigeria has played a major role in stabilizing its region. Yet, Nigeria has a long way to go before it is really the stable and secure country Washington -- and Nigerians -- need it to be. The explosion was a big setback.

But Nigeria is in Africa. The way the media underplayed the deaths of hundreds of people there sends the message that African life is cheap. As Wycliff's example demonstrates, hundreds of African lives, in the eyes of America and its media, aren't worth just two in Israel.

Joe Davidson is a charter Poynter Ethics Fellow and a commentator for NPR's "Morning Edition.".


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