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How Much Less Newsworthy Are Civilians in Other Conflicts?

A lot less, particularly when they’re victims of the US, FAIR, JULIE HOLLAR, 18 Mar 22, As US news media covered the first shocking weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, some media observers—like FAIR founder Jeff Cohen (Common Dreams2/28/22)—have noted their impressions of how coverage differed from wars past, particularly in terms of a new focus on the impact on civilians.

To quantify and deepen these observations, FAIR studied the first week of coverage of the Ukraine war (2/24–3/2/22) on ABC World News TonightCBS Evening News and NBC Nightly News. We used the Nexis news database to count both sources (whose voices get to be heard?) and segments (what angles are covered?) about Ukraine during the study period. Comparing this coverage to that of other conflicts reveals both a familiar reliance on US officials to frame events, as well as a newfound ability to cover the impact on civilians—when those civilians are white and under attack by an official US enemy, rather than by the US itself.

Ukrainian sourcesno experts

One of the most striking things about early coverage has been the sheer number of Ukrainian sources. FAIR always challenges news media to seek out the perspective of those most impacted by events, and US outlets are doing so to a much greater extent in this war than in any war in recent history. Of 234 total sources—230 of whom had identifiable nationalities—119 were Ukrainian (including five living in the United States.)

However, these were overwhelmingly person-on-the-street interviews that rarely consisted of more than one or two lines. Even the three Ukrainian individuals identified as having a relevant professional expertise—two doctors and a journalist—spoke only of their personal experience of the war. Twenty-one (17% of Ukrainian sources) were current or former government or military officials.

Airing so many Ukrainian voices, but asking so few to provide actual analysis, has the effect of generating sympathy, but for a people painted primarily as pawns or victims, rather than as having valuable knowledge, history and potential contributions to determine their own futures.

Meanwhile, Russian government sources only appeared four times. Sixteen other Russian sources were quoted: 13 persons on the street, an opposition politician and two members of wealthy families.

Eighty sources were from the United States, including 57 current or former US officials. Despite the diplomatic involvement of the European Union, only two Western European sources were featured: the Norwegian NATO Secretary General and a German civilian helping refugees in Poland. There were also eight foreign civilians featured living in Ukraine: three from the US, three African and two Middle Eastern.

And while political leaders certainly bring important knowledge and perspective to war coverage, so too do scholars, think tanks and civic organizations with regional expertise. But these voices were almost completely marginalized, with only five such civil society experts appearing during the study period. All were in the United States, although one was Ukrainian-American Michael Sawkiw (CBS2/24/22), who represented the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America (an organization associated with Stepan Bandera’s faction of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, which participated in the Holocaust during World War II).

In effect, then, US news media have largely allowed US officials to frame the terms of the conflict for viewers. While officials lambasted the Russian government and emphasized “what we’re going to do to help the Ukrainian people in the struggle” (NBC, 3/1/22), no sources questioned the US’s own role in contributing to the conflict (, 3/4/22), or the impact of Western sanctions on Russian civilians.

The bias in favor of US officials, and the marginalization of experts from the country being invaded—as well as civil society experts from any country—recalls US TV news coverage of another large-scale invasion in recent history: the US invasion of Iraq. A FAIR study (Extra!5–6/03) at the time found that in the three weeks after the US launched that war, current and former US officials made up more than half (52%) of all sources on the primetime news programs on ABCCBSNBCCNNFox and PBS. Iraqis were only 12% of sources, and 4% of all sources were academic, think tank or NGO representatives.

n other words, though the bias is even greater when the US is leading the war, US media seem content to let US officials fashion the narrative around any war, and to mute their critics.

Visible and invisible civilians

But there are striking differences as well in coverage of the two wars. Most notably, when the US invaded Iraq, civilians in the country made up a far smaller percentage of sources: 8% to Ukraine’s 45%.

n other words, though the bias is even greater when the US is leading the war, US media seem content to let US officials fashion the narrative around any war, and to mute their critics.

Visible and invisible civilians

But there are striking differences as well in coverage of the two wars. Most notably, when the US invaded Iraq, civilians in the country made up a far smaller percentage of sources: 8% to Ukraine’s 45%.

But on US TV news, antiwar sentiment appeared starkly different in the two conflicts. Of the 20 Russian sources in the study, ten (50%) expressed opposition to the war, significantly higher than the proportion polls were showing. Meanwhile, antiwar voices represented only 3% of all US sources in early Iraq coverage (FAIR.org5/03), a dramatic downplaying of public opposition.

Civilian-centered war coverage

The brunt of modern wars is almost always borne by innocent civilians. But US media coverage of that civilian toll is rarely in sharp focus, such that recent reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine offers an exceptional view of what civilian-centered war coverage can look like—under certain circumstances.

In our study, we looked not just at sources, but also the content of segments about Ukraine. In the first week of the war, the US primetime news broadcasts on ABCCBS and NBC offered regular reports on the civilian toll of the invasion, sending reporters to major targeted cities, as well as to border areas receiving refugees.

Seventy-one segments across the three networks covered the impact on Ukrainian civilians, both those remaining behind and those fleeing the violence. Twenty-eight of these mentioned or centered on civilian casualties.

Many reports described or aired soundbites of civilians describing their fear and the challenges they faced; several highlighted children. A representative ABC segment (2/28/22), for instance, featured correspondent Matt Gutman reporting: “This little girl on the train sobbing into her stuffed animal, just one of the more than 500,000 people leaving everything behind, fleeing in cramped trains.”

Making the impact on civilians the focus of the story, and featuring their experiences, encourages sympathy for those civilians and condemnation of war. But this demonstration of news media’s ability to center the civilian impact, including civilian casualties, in Ukraine is all the more damning of their coverage of wars in which the US and its allies have been the aggressors—or in which the victims have not been white.

They seem so like us’

Many pundits and journalists have been caught saying the quiet part loud. “They seem so like us,” wrote Daniel Hannan in the Telegraph (2/26/22). “That is what makes it so shocking.”

CBS News‘ Charlie D’Agata (2/25/22) told viewers that Ukraine

isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully, too—city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.

“What’s compelling is, just looking at them, the way they are dressed, these are prosperous—I’m loath to use the expression—middle-class people,” marveled BBC reporter Peter Dobbie on Al Jazeera (2/27/22):

These are not obviously refugees looking to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to.

While US news media have at times shown interest in Black and brown refugees and victims of war (e.g., Extra!10/15), it’s hard to imagine them ever getting the kind of massive coverage granted the Ukrainians who “look like us”—as defined by white journalists.

‘Give war a chance’

And one can certainly think of instances in which non-white refugees are given short shrift by US news. Despite their claims of deep concern for the people of Afghanistan as the US withdrew troops last year, for example, these same TV networks have barely covered the predictable and preventable humanitarian catastrophe facing the country (FAIR.org12/21/21). More than 5 million Afghan civilians are either refugees or internally displaced……………………………………

‘The booms of distant wars’

As the Russian invasion of Ukraine commenced, NBC anchor Lester Holt (2/25/22) mused:

Tonight, there are at least 27 armed conflicts raging on this planet. Yet so often the booms of distant wars fade before they reach our consciousness. Other times, raw calculations of shared national interests close that distance. But as we are reminded again in images from Ukraine, the pain of war is borderless.

Holt spoke as though journalists like himself play no role in determining which wars reach our consciousness and which fade. The pain of war might be borderless, but international responses to that pain depend very much on the sympathy generated by journalists through their coverage of it. And Western journalists have made very clear which victims’ pain is most newsworthy to them.


March 19, 2022 - Posted by | media, weapons and war

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