Boko Haram and Nigeria: Western media underplayed the story for practical, not ethical, reasons

The Only Way Is Ethics: The level of coverage afforded to this crime by The Independent is hardly indicative of a lack of interest

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The Independent Online

If 200 children were abducted by paramilitaries from their school in the UK it would immediately be front-page news and lead to saturation coverage on our television screens.

The kidnapping of 200 schoolgirls by the extremists of Boko Haram in Nigeria last month did not elicit quite the same response.  The outrage took place on the night of 14 April.  The Independent reported the news in the first available edition (16 April), in a brief item on page 28.  It was unclear at that stage who had carried out the abduction, although Boko Haram were the obvious suspects, and the number of children involved was estimated at ‘more than 100’.

On the following day we carried a longer report, setting out how the attack was believed to have happened, Boko Haram gunmen having apparently posed as government soldiers.  The article explained the Islamist group’s development and noted that this was the latest in a long line of atrocities it had committed.

It was not until 1 May that we next ran a full-length report, noting that the girls had still not been found and that protests against the Nigerian government’s failure to take decisive action were gaining momentum.  Only in the last week has the incident made it into the paper’s leader column as worldwide anger grows.

The level of coverage afforded to this crime by The Independent is hardly indicative of a lack of interest, either among readers or journalists; nor is there any less revulsion because it has happened in Africa, rather than somewhere closer to home.  But there is less shock, in the sense that it is not something which has happened out of the blue.  The Boko Haram uprising has been ongoing for five years; an estimated 1,500 people at least have been killed in 2014 alone.  In the last twelve months, The Independent has written about the group on 35 occasions.

Mary Dejevsky, writing in last Friday’s paper, was spot-on: western media did initially underplay the story.  But the reason was primarily practical, not ethical.  When the news first emerged, details were extremely sketchy, to the point where a front-page ‘splash’ would have been difficult to put together.  Even though further information gradually became available, in terms of the story’s evolution the main news was that there was no news: the girls remain unfound, their whereabouts and fate undetermined; their kidnappers, meanwhile, are known but seemingly untouchable.   


I admit it, codes of practice are not enthralling to most people. Even though codes of behaviour, written or unwritten, govern so much of our lives, they are not usually found among bestseller lists. We become immersed in them only because of professional necessity or as a result of sheer geekdom.

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It has been one of the notable factors in the interminable Leveson and post-Leveson debate that the Code of Practice overseen since 1991 by the Press Complaints Commission has been broadly commended.

For The Independent, this industry-wide Code is an important guide to how we go about our editorial business. In common with other newspapers, it is incorporated into our own in-house Code of Conduct, which we re-launched last week.

Our Code has been rewritten to take account of the fact that we are now part of a group that counts a TV channel, London Live, among its component parts. It has also been given a plain-language makeover and some judicious subbing. But it retains an ethos that emphasises independence, integrity and responsibility.

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