Media Coverage of Boko Haram: What and Why

Posted on May 1, 2016 by


The objective of this post is to review various media reports on Boko Haram and determine what if any differences/similarities exist in the reports tied to the geography and/consumers of the media in question.  I will argue that the reports will reflect differences that are reflected in how the articles are framed verbally and pictorially.

With respect to pictures I will look at the following:

  • are there pictures
  • origin of the pictures
  • subject matter

With respect to verbal content I will look at:

  • is there an article
  • number of articles
  • is the content original
  • tenor of the article; who is it serving, does it have a purpose, objectivity
  • focus of the article; general overview, specific event, other

I have reviewed 20 articles from Europe, the United States, Cameroon and Nigeria.  Within the United States I have reviewed articles from mid-size city newspapers and from national newspapers.

Boko Haram began in 2001 when a local cleric from Maiduguri, Mohammed Yusuf found a following as he preached about the Nigerian government’s failures to care for its people.  He tapped into the grievances of the northern Muslim population concerning economic and social disparity as well as high unemployment, the result of a concentration of resources in the ruling elite, obtained through rampant corruption. This in Africa’s largest economy, at that time, an oil rich nation.

Yusuf attempted to form independent settlements in the Borneo and Yobe States.  At this time the group became known as Boko Haram which can be translated as “western education is forbidden” in the local language.  To this point the group’s undertakings were predominately peaceful.

In 2009 the group came under attack by police during a funeral procession.  Police shot 17 people. Police battled the group for days.  800 people died; many allegedly extrajudicially at the hands of the police. Yusuf himself was arrested and also died, allegedly extrajudicially, while in custody.

Under the new leader, Abubakar Shekau, the group became much more violent destroying infrastructure as well as schools, churches and mosques and killing teachers and students throughout central and northern Nigeria.  (Alexis Okeowo, “Inside the Vigilante Fight Against Boko Haram”, The New York Times, 11.5.2014)

The map below, also from the above referenced article, will give the reader a perspective of the region discussed in the articles.

Screen Shot 2016-04-28 at 20.21.20.png


Media Reports-US Local

  • The Tennessean-Local Nashville TN newspaper
    • Boko Haram articles in 2016-0
  • The Charlotte Observer-Local Charlotte NC newspaper
    • Boko Haram articles in 2016-10
    • With pictures-10
    • Primary source-AP
  • The Boston Herald-Local Boston newspaper
    • Boko Haram articles in 2016-23
    • With pictures 23
    • Primary source AP
  • The Omaha World Herald-Local Omaha newspaper
    • Boko Haram articles-30
    • With picture-18
    • Primary source-AP

Summary US Local-Main points highlighted below:

Media Reports-National/International

  • The Los Angeles Times
    • Boko Haram articles-23 last month (site restriction)
    • With Picture-23
    • Primary sources-LA Times reporters, AP(minimal), Tribune News Service(minimal)
  • New York Times
    • Boko Haram articles-26
    • With pictures-20
    • Primary sources-NYT reporters, Reuters(minimal, AP(minimal)
  • La Monde
    • Boko Haram articles 2016-75
    • With picture-75
    • Primary sources-La Monde reporters, guest writers, AFP(minimal), Reuters(minimal)
  • The Guardian
    • Boko Haram articles 2016-25
    • With picture-25
    • Primary sources-Guardian reporters, independent reporters, authors

Summary National/International-Main points highlighted below:

Media Reports-Local-at the site of the event

  • Premium Times
    • Boko Haram articles in 2016-41 (maybe more, site is dodgy)
    • With pictures-41
    • Premium Times/local reporters/Premium Times non byline
  • Cameroon Daily Journal
    • Boko Haram articles in 2016-7
    • With pictures-7
    • Cameroon Daily Journal Reporters

Summary-Local- at the site of the event-Main points highlighted below:

  • There is not a lot of great objective reporting here, other than strict event based, X did Y, etc.  A lot of the stories serve the existing government power structure.  Nigeria seemed better than Chad or Cameroon.  But given that the Le Monde: Afrique edition ran a story the other day about police who had to show their voting ballots to their supervisors before casting them, and if they refused, or if they did not vote for the incumbent, they disappeared, I’m not surprised that it is not the bastion of the free press.
  • That said, most of the reporting is event based and clearly aimed at a local audience caught in the middle of this event.


Looking at essentially four different reporting types, US Local (US cities circa 500k-600k population), US National, International and Local-at the event, it appears to me that there are four different approaches to the reporting.

Starting with the US Local, it is clear to me that this type of news is not a priority in and of itself to the audience of these papers:

  • one paper had no articles
  • of the papers that ran articles, virtually all were pulled off the AP wire.
  • none were written by a reporter employed by the paper
  • taken as a body of work, these articles reinforce stereotypes Americans have been offered by the government and our media.
  • Boko Haram represents radical Islam, which is or is becoming the primary representative of Islam as a whole to a large part of our population. This is unfortunate, but I believe it is the case. They are portrayed in the above articles as:
    • needing rehabilitation
    • connected to ISIS
    • committing atrocities
    • even their victims are shunned by the local African people
    • victims need outside help and funding is difficult to obtain (in the largest country in Africa with the largest GDP, Nigeria)
  • Though available through national and international papers, none of these Local US papers ran any stories that did a deep dive into:
    • what the broad spectrum picture was on the history and development of Boko Haram specifically, and radical Islam in general in sub-Saharan Africa.
    • what are the political, religious and intellectual alternatives on the ground in sub-Saharan Africa and Nigeria in particular that could be leveraged to turn this situation around.
    • why is this conflict obviously not a priority in the US in general and these local markets specifically.
    • what is it like to be a part of this as a local stakeholder, in this case a reporter or a citizen of Nigeria
    • We see all these issues addressed in the national/international papers.
  • lack of this type of reporting leaves the reader constantly being reinforced with negative images which through  basic programmed cognitive connections, lead back to Islam. No alternatives are presented
  • presenting actions for positive outcomes, portraying local leaders with credibility, showing what the social situations are in sub-Saharan Africa from an economic, regulatory and governmental standpoint would go a long way toward leaving a regular reader with a different view of the situation (and of Islam)
  • most of the news is negative, so all the more reason to highlight the positives and the potential solutions.

Moving on to US National and International papers, we continue to find reports of atrocities, the misery of IDP camps and problems that exist for returned hostages etcetera.  But the story does not end here.  What do we have to balance this in the readers mind:

  • Jessica Roy reporting for the LA Times does a good job explaining why  we hear little about terrorism in Africa, which I believe can be extended as evidence as to why we hear even less about said terrorism’s solutions:
    • we cannot visualise ourselves in the shoes of these victims; they have completely different lives
    • not true of the folks in Brussels and Paris, or even Iraq where our country has been so heavily invested for so long.
    • so we suffer empathy fatigue, we’ve nothing left to give to people we don’t understand.
    • news outlets have limited resources, so we see less and there is less depth in what we see in the news about places with which we are not familiar.
  • Joan Tilouine’s article in Le Monde,”Nigeria:l’émir de Kano, entre islam et finance” is well worth reading. HRH Muhammad Sanusi II, fifty-seventh Emir of Kano né Lamido Sanusi, a polymath, led the Central Bank of Nigeria from 2009-2014, is a brilliant economist, liberal and forward thinking. He has a degree in Islamic Law from the African University in Khartoum.  His specialties are Islam and economics.  He is also Chairman of the Board of Directors of Black Rhino, a Blackstone subsidiary.  He also has a price on his head from Boko Haram, who recently tried to kill him.  He says “I do not spend my time thinking about Boko Haram”  “I bring electricity, fight poverty, revive industry and develop agriculture”  This while being a major religious/political leader in his region.  The reader will walk away from this read with a different view of Nigeria, even in the midst of the carnage.  In four letters, H O P E.
  •  The Le Monde interview with Serge Michailof <<Le Sahel est constitué d’une série de poudrières>> is fascinating, well thought out and worth ones attention. He is a regular consultant to the World Bank, a researcher at a prominent think tank and a professor at a leading French university.  His argument is, that without meaningful intervention, the Sahel emerges as a new Afghanistan.  Afghanistan and the Sahel share serious structural weaknesses:
    • less than 0.5% access to electricity
    • no job creation
    • rising tensions with respect to access to land, water and pasture
    • ethnic and religious tension
    • public institutions so weak that they disappear as soon as one leaves the city
    • emergence of serious organised crime
    • dissemination of radical Islam replacing traditional tolerant Islam
  • Michailof goes on to opine on various approaches to deal with this problem before it is too late.  A good read.  Again-hope; a positive message.
  • Le Monde:Afrique/AFP’s “Les écoles, cible privilégiée de Boko Haram” in Le Monde:Afrique, is a heartbreaking article about the possibility of a full generation of students whose education has been sacrificed. A wasted resource no country can afford.
  • Dionne Searcey’s “”Where Is This Flight Going? “and Other Basic Questions About African Travel” in the NY Times is an interesting article that puts a human face on the reporter’s plight in covering events like Boko Haram.  Hardly earth shattering, but a welcome break from the negativity.  In fairness, NYT did some great in depth stories that gave the situation hope and understanding, but they were in 2014 and 2015.
  • Listen to Lucy Lamble’s Global development podcast/ “Counting the Cost of the Boko Haram Crisis”.  Listen here  Listening to these affected people speak to you leaves you with a very different feeling than reading through the daily AP article.  It may not be a message of hope, but it pulls you away from being railroaded down a standard thought track on this issue and forces you to think yourself.  At least it did me.

With respect to the Local-at the site of the event reporting, we have to take into consideration the regimes in power in some of these places. But that said, there is a lot of what you would expect, this road is now open, government troops did this or that, Boko Haram did this or that, dried meat can no longer be sold due to Boko Haram cattle rustling.  Trade in pepper and spices banned temporarily due to Boko Haram involvement.  Of course, the atrocities, when they occur make the news, as do reports on life in the IDP camps.

A couple of interesting articles, one from Nigeria and one from Cameroon:

  • Jennifer Cook’s article, “Nigeria, Now Comes the Hard Part-Five Priorities in the Continuing Fight Against Boko Haram” in the Premium Times is a well put together piece dealing with what is needed to move forward as Boko Haram is brought under more control; the government needs to:
    • Prevent Boko Haram from regenerating
    • Strengthen intelligence through community engagement
    • Provide an off ramp for Boko Harm Fighters
    • Don’t forsake IDP’s
    • Think beyond Boko Haram and be aware of rising sectarian rivalries
  • This article is well thought out and gives the reader hope that a solution is not out of the question; as well as making the point that there is a job to do after the military defeat.
  •  The Cameroon Daily Journal’s”Biya Recommends Witchcraft in Fight Against Boko Haram” brought home to me just how far we all are culturally from this part of the world.  A lot of of my other reading did as well, but this on left me gobsmacked.  It appeared surrounded by several other articles about the government arming and training vigilantes.  Vigilantes figure prominently in this fight.  There needs to be an off ramp for them as well.


The media reporting on Boko Haram differs greatly depending on the region/geographical location of the media outlet. In American mid sized  cities we generally get prepackaged AP reporting.  It is negative, as the situation is negative, but it lacks a thoughtful balance found in the reporting from larger US cities and especially from media outlets in Europe. This is not surprising.  While America can be accused of economic imperialism, we have never colonised other regions like the Europeans.  The Monroe Doctrine is still fresh in our minds as a population (though most probably don’t know what it is), there being many Americans who do not believe we should get involved in overseas conflicts and even more who would ascribe to portion of the doctrine prohibiting foreign colonisation in the Americas.  In short, we have isolationist roots. This has been reinforced by America’s geographic location and, as I say, its cultural.

On top of the cultural element,  America has no dog in this fight, economically.  While we were at one time a large buyer of Nigerian oil, it was one of the first casualties of fracking.  With an isolationist population and no economic interest involving a group of people with whom we absolutely can’t identify, its not surprising that the average middle class citizen does not care about this conflict, which drives what is reported.

The better question might be, why do our national papers serve up more enlightening articles.  Well, my supposition is that they are read by the academic and economic intelligentsia who tend to be more aware and enlightened than many of the middle class and there are enough of these people in large cities like NY and LA to serve.  There simply aren’t enough of those people in Nashville or Omaha to serve.  (If you doubt my “intelligentsia analysis”, I would submit that it can easily be backed up though a NYT advertisement analysis compared say to the Omaha World Herald (print versions))

Also, the economics of running a newspaper in such a large city, with a national subscriber base, make having foreign correspondents, or even contractors, much more realistic.

The French and the English on the other hand both colonised Africa, and both were very active in the heart of northern Nigeria/Lake Chad region which is central to the Boko Haram conflict.  They have a historic interest in the region.  They have not spent the last 250 years breeding a culture of isolationism.  Hence their intelligentsia do care and have cultural and economic roots in this region.

The Local-at the site of the event reporting was least surprising, event based, influenced by local culture, supportive of the regimes in power. Also, as I say above, what road has recently reopened as it was wrested from Boko Haram, is only of interest to the locals.  There was evidence of some serious thought given with respect to “what next”, but generally it was simple and basic.  If picture analysis had any result it was here.  Among the Local-at the site papers, there were numerous pictures of regional leaders, Presidents and army generals.  These type of pictures seldom appeared in any of the other reporting.


  13. Lucy Lamble, Global development podcast/ Counting the Cost of the Boko Haram Crisis, The Guardian, sponsored by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 1.10.16. here
  14. Google translate here









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