Somewhere in the world, according to this old journalism parable, there is a chart hanging on the wall of a major Associated Press wire service bureau. (Yes, I have discussed this myth before.)
The purpose of the chart is to help editors figure out, when disaster strikes somewhere in the world, just "how big" a story this particular disaster is, compared with others. Is this an A1 or front of the website story? Is this a story that major television networks will mention or perhaps even send personnel to cover? Or was this a story with lots of death and destruction, but it belongs in the back pages somewhere with the other "briefs" that readers won't notice?
The chart has a bottom line and editors can do the math.
It states that, when tragedy or terror strike, 1000 victims in Latvia equals 500 in India, which equals 100 in Mexico, 75 in France, 50 in England, 25 Canada, five in the United States of America (that's flyover country) or one Hollywood celebrity or a famous person in New York City or Washington, D.C.
In other words, according to the mathematics of news, not all human lives are created equal. It's a matter of location, location, location.
The question posed in a quietly provocative piece at Crux, a Catholic-news publication that frequently covers religious persecution, is this: How many terrorist victims in Nigeria do you have to have to equal several victims in the heart of London?
The headline: "In London’s wake, Africans ask: ‘Where’s the outrage for us?’ " This past week, I was in a meeting with a veteran journalist from Nigeria (who also has editing experience in the American Northeast) and he was asking the same question. Here is the overture of the story:
ROME -- In the wake of Wednesday’s terrorist attack on London’s Houses of Parliament that left four dead, the cross-section of African Catholic leaders meeting in Rome this week immediately expressed solidarity and revulsion.
“I sympathize, seeing what happened to our brothers in London, it was inhuman,” said Father Joe Shio of Tanzania.
Listening carefully, however, these African Catholics were also asking something else: To wit, why is it that when four people are killed in London, it’s a global cause célèbre, but when 40 or 400 die in Africa under violent circumstances, it doesn’t arouse the same outrage?
It's all about that mythical chart on the wire-service bureau wall. Right? And that chart on the wall affects the coverage of other stories, as well.
“Take modern slavery today, human trafficking today … we see an exodus from Africa, especially the young. They’re being buried in the heart of the sea, or dying in the desert. Many are living under forced labor and forced prostitution. Some are sliced open alive and their organs taken away, and left to die,” said Sister M. Maamalifar Poreku, Ghana, a member of the Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Africa.
“Is this not terrorism? Who’s talking about it?” she told Crux. ... “It’s a question of the power of the media,” Shio said. “The things that get publicity are important and serious, but there are more serious issues that should get at least the same attention, but they don’t. What’s the problem?”
It is tempting, of course, to say that race factors into this news equation. But how many ordinary Nigerians does Boko Haram need to kill to equal the death of one wealthy African-American hip-hop artist?
Money is also very important, but not as important as that hard-to-describe factor that is fame or cultural "buzz." It would be interesting to compare the major-news coverage of the death of George Michael with that of, to back up a few years, Johnny Cash. Who was the greater artist in terms of lasting cultural impact? Ah, but who mattered more to editors in London and New York City?
In the meeting in Rome, Catholic leaders tried to define this mysterious news-industry X factor in other terms:
Father Charles C. Muorah of Nigeria thinks he knows the answer to that question: Money and power. The neglect of African suffering, he said, “has political and economic connotations.”
“Colonization is ‘over,’ in parentheses, but it’s taken on new forms. The value of a human person in certain cultures is considered less important, therefore what happens to them doesn’t matter, which frees you to exploit them,” Muorah said.
Of course, has Pope Francis has noted (in the kind of statement that draws relatively little news coverage), there is more to ideological or cultural colonization than money and political power. There is the cultural power of elite media, especially entertainment media, and the causes favored by their leaders. Who typically receives more news coverage today, a YouTube sensation pop star or a Wall Street magnate whose decisions affect millions?
But there is an even larger question here: Who do ordinary readers want to read about?
In other words, does this problem have something to do with the values of the marketplace, in this age when power is measured in Twitter followers and mouse "clicks"? Which story would receive the most coverage in African media, the death of Beyonce or the latest massacre of a hundred Christians in Northern Nigeria by Boko Haram?
I think I know the answer to that question, even though it makes me angry.
So Crux covered this story. That's good, but that isn't the issue, is it? Crux has a different chart, because it is a different kind of publication. Welcome to the digital age.