Influencing the Message: The Role of Catholic Missionaries in Media Coverage of the Nigerian Civil War

By Waters, Ken | The Catholic Historical Review, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Influencing the Message: The Role of Catholic Missionaries in Media Coverage of the Nigerian Civil War


Waters, Ken, The Catholic Historical Review


British television journalist Alan Hart was wrapping up a reporting trip to the newly proclaimed nation of Biafra in the spring of 1968, having captured film of bloody battles between Biafran rebels and the Nigerian army fighting to keep Nigeria unified. An Irish priest caught Hart's attention. "There's a real story here. Do you want to know it? Do you want to see it?" he asked Hart.1 Hart left with Holy Ghost Father Kevin Doheny, a veteran missionary in Nigeria, and captured heart-breaking scenes of children slowly dying in makeshift hospital beds because they had no food or medicine. These children were victims of Nigeria's deliberate policy to starve the Biafrans through a land and sea blockade. One of the only initial lifelines of help came from Irish and Biafran priests and nuns whose lives of spiritual service had been transformed into that of relief workers as they used their medical clinics, churches, and schools as triage units for the suffering.

Hart's report aired on the International Television Network (ITN) program "Panorama," adding vivid visual confirmation to an increasing number of newspaper reports emanating from eastern Nigeria. One observer noted: "This kind of tragedy was new to [television] viewers. Most hadn't seen a starving child in glorious Technicolor, looking like a matchstick, with a protruding stomach and the reddish-brown hair that signals a slow death from starvation."2

The impact of the Panorama story combined with those newspaper reports galvanized world opinion in a manner similar to that unleashed when Michael Buerk's vivid 1984 stories of mass starvation in Ethiopia aired on the BBC and NBC. In both instances, within hours people worldwide were asking how they could donate money to stop the suffering, while demanding that their governments put aside political considerations and mobilize more resources to help. Media coverage of the possible genocide and the devastation from hunger in Nigeria raged from 1968 until early in 1970, when the Nigerians won the civil war. Images on TV and in newspapers and magazines transformed several Irish priests of the Holy Ghost Order (now Spiritans) into the role of international celebrities, while forever changing the nature of the journalist-source relationship in the reporting on international disasters.

The dogged determination and calculated communication strategy of the priests, documented in public statements and private correspondence, has not been fully explored by historians. Of particular note is the ongoing public relations campaign on behalf of innocent victims that the Holy Ghost Fathers mounted in Europe and the United States, a public relations campaign backed by their death-defying humanitarian efforts. As a result of their actions, the priests also set in motion an expectation that European and American missionaries and staff of private humanitarian agencies would help the media report on similar situations. That is what happened during the Ethiopia famines of 1972 and 1984 and in several humanitarian crises since that time.

Theoretical Perspectives

To better understand the impact of the publicity campaign of the priests, two theories of mass communication are instructive. These are agenda setting and framing. Agenda setting theory says that when editors choose and display news, they play an important part in shaping the political and social reality of news consumers.3 Through the placement of a story, or the words and images used to describe the event and its characters, media people in essence tell their audience: "Here is something to think about." Bernard Cohen noted that the media "may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think, but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about."4 Continued coverage of an ongoing news event signals to audiences that this is something they should pay attention to.

News frames are the windows in which the news is presented, and the framing includes the packaging and display of the information (headlines, photos, and video footage), as well as the text.

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