#JesuisMogadishu – or not

By Joy Portella

 

I’ve been working remotely this month from Sicily – the subject of a whole different blog – so I haven’t been paying as much attention to the news as I usually do. I’ve only been skimming the headlines: mass shooting in Las Vegas; Harvey Weinstein outed as a sexual predator; Trump makes flailing, unpredictable moves around ACA, DACA, and the Iran Deal.

 

Then there was a blip on the BBC: more than 300 people killed in Mogadishu bombings. Wait. What?

 

I went online to read. On Sunday, a massive truck bomb detonated in the center of the Somali capital became one of the worst terrorist attacks the world has seen in years. More than 300 people were killed and hundreds more were injured. It’s suspected, but not yet confirmed, that the terrorist group Al-Shabaab was behind the attack.

 

This is a massive event but it hasn’t garnered the attention of Western media the way recent stories like the Las Vegas shooting and the Weinstein affair have. Media also have not covered the Somalia bombing with anything close to the same intensity as recent attacks in London, Nice, or Barcelona, which killed far fewer people. I’ve worked for years on global stories of human tragedy and triumph, and I’m always intrigued – and often disheartened – by what becomes news and what doesn’t.

 

Twitter is filled with the voices of angry people from Somalia and other African countries decrying the lack of media coverage, public attention, and outrage against the attack. They are using the hashtags #JeSuisMogadishu, a takeoff of the wildly popular #JeSuisCharlie hashtag used after the 2015 shootings in Paris, and #JeSuisMogadiscio, a version of the same hashtag that uses the Italian spelling (Somalia was once an Italian colony) of the nation’s capital.

 

As thousands marched in the streets of Mogadishu to protest the attacks and stand in solidarity against them, the story had disappeared from the homepages of the New York Times, Washington Post, and BBC. Things aren’t much different in the land of Somalia’s former colonial power. Just a few days after the attacks – as the story is still very much evolving – the largest circulation newspapers in Italy, La Reppublica and Corriere Della Sera, feature homepage stories on Melania Trump’s purported body double and insights from Princess Kate’s personal photographer. But they haven’t followed up on their initial, fleeting stories of the Mogadishu bombing that ran earlier this week.

 

There’s dispute about the lack of coverage. Journalists like The Washington Post’s Africa bureau chief Kevin Sieff  insist on social media that coverage is there but the public concern is not.

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But whether it’s driven by public apathy or a pure lack of reporting, the result is the same: There’s less attention being paid to this story than to others, and there’s less public outrage. So why?

 

Views on this differ, but they all offer an ugly picture of our journalistic filter. This Al Jazeera article summarizes a lot of social media chatter about the dearth of attention being fueled by a toxic mix of racism and xenophobia, probably with a dash of Islamophobia tossed into the mix. The BBC’s former Africa editor Martin Plaut claims that, in the UK, the problem is a combination of domestic news prioritization and a Western perception that events like this massive attack aren’t particularly surprising and newsworthy in an unstable place like Somalia.

 

A more nuanced, and I think equally important view, comes from Alexis Okeowo at The New Yorker. Her take is that the nature of media stories about attacks like the one in Mogadishu is critical to inspiring public empathy – or not. When media don’t dig into the personal aspects of big global events, when the reporting is perfunctory and “just the facts,” readers and viewers don’t have an emotional stake in the game. Inadequate storytelling renders Mogadishu a distant, terrible tragedy, but not a human one that moves Western readers.

 

Stories like the Guardian’s account of the young Somali medical student Maryam Abdullahi Gedi have been few and far between in Western media. Overall, the Guardian’s reporting has been more thorough and thoughtful than other outlets, and I was impressed when I read the story of Ms. Gedi – a promising young woman whose life was cut short.

 

Just as I was about to laud the storytelling-without-borders chops of the Guardian’s journalism, I noticed one fine point: Ms. Gedi’s father lives in the UK. This was a British story, not a Somali one, and that most certainly made it “worth” telling.