Laurent Leger, an investigations correspondent at the French weekly satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo, reportedly believed the noises he heard echoing from the lobby of the publication’s Paris headquarters Jan. 7 came from firecrackers. Some sort of delayed New Year’s revelry. A joke.
Two days later — after the attacks that left 17 victims and three gunmen dead in and around the French capital — the notion that a joke would surface anywhere in Paris hardly seemed plausible. The same held true among supporters of free speech and a free press across the globe.
Indeed, worldwide response to the tragedy was both swift and dramatic. Crowds jammed into city squares for candlelit vigils in Istanbul, Sydney, Hong Kong, New York and San Francisco. Social media users changed their various profile pictures to images of the French flag or stark black backgrounds featuring the slogan “Je suis Charlie” (French for “I am Charlie”). Headlines such as “Massacred in minutes,” “An assault on democracy” and “Dark day for liberté” were boldly splashed across the front page of nearly every major Western newspaper.
But missing from the headlines, or at least far more subdued among them, was mention of a large-scale massacre that occurred in Baga, Nigeria, on Jan. 3. As the Associated Press reported, militant Islamist group Boko Haram killed as many as 2,000 civilians and destroyed an estimated 3,700 homes and businesses in the rural region.
For 10 consecutive days after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, The New York Times featured at least one front-page story about the shootings. By contrast, the Times’ first staff-written report about the Boko Haram massacre appeared in print a full week after the attack—in the form of a relatively brief piece on an inner page, The Times‘s Margaret Sullivan wrote.
Both the Charlie Hebdo shootings and the Boko Haram massacre were undeniably tragic. The scope of loss during that first week of the new year was hardly calculable.
But where was the outpouring of support for the fallen Nigerians? Why did the only subject on our minds, newspapers and television screens seem to be Charlie Hebdo?
In the U.S., the rights of free speech and the free press are constantly emphasized. And for good reason: The U.S. is one of few countries that have such unrestricted freedom of such rights. It seems natural, then, that American media outlets focused upon an event that put some of the rights we hold most dear at risk. Perhaps the Charlie Hebdo shootings simply felt closer to home than the Boko Haram massacre. Because of our cultural ties to much of Europe, we may feel personally involved in, and threatened by, European crises.
A city as well known and high profile as Paris, furthermore, may seem more subject to attention than a remote area of West Africa. Many news outlets cited difficulties in verifying the details of the Boko Haram massacre as one reason for their brief and delayed coverage of the event. Beyond even that, the scale of the Boko Haram massacre was so immense that it seemed almost unreal. Two thousand people? That’s just fewer than half the population of Lehigh’s undergraduate student body. In short, such violence seems so distant and unbelievable that we tend to hardly acknowledge it. But does that make not knowing about it OK?
It’s clear that media effectively tell us what to care about and think about. Journalists’ own agenda-setting dictates what’s “supposed” to be important, and the reality is that media often cover issues that are more apt to hit home for their audience.
But how many other tragic events happened that week that we don’t know about — that we’ll never know about?
Neither a single person nor media outlet has the resources to be informed about everything, good or bad, that occurs across the globe. Similarly, no one has the resources — whether time, energy, direct involvement or money — to devote to every cause we’d like to care about. While it’s ideal, it’s unrealistic.
In this day and age, many people get their news from Facebook, Twitter and other platforms that are driven by friends and followers. In short, our peers are often the ones who tell us what to think about — which means we’re more likely to pay attention to things when they’re “trendy.”
The #jesuischarlie movement was not a universal effort to hop on some sort of bandwagon. If you truly want to stand up for the victims of the Charlie Hebdo shooting or be a champion of free press and free speech, by all means, raise your voice. But if you’re being supportive for the sake of fitting in, your efforts would be better spent elsewhere.
When there are so many terrible things constantly happening, it’s hard to process all of them and provide support for every cause. By cutting yourself off from information or limiting yourself to the perspectives of those you’re already familiar with, however, you’re creating your own personal barriers.
Instead, diversify your sources of information, and be able to admit that you don’t know about something. Make the commitment to a continuous learning process, and allow what you learn to determine what you truly care about and how you approach life itself.
We may indeed all be Charlie. But at some point, we must choose who and what else we stand for, too.