The biases in coverage of the war in Ukraine

In the days since Russia invaded Ukraine, writers at a number of major outlets have criticized Western media coverage of the war as racist. They have often pointed to examples of journalists characterizing the invasion as the sort of thing that happens in poor countries, but not in Europe: a CBS correspondent calling Kyiv a “relatively civilized” city; a reporter for Britain’s ITV saying that Ukraine is not “a developing third world nation”; an anchor on Al Jazeera describing refugees as “prosperous, middle-class people,” not “people trying to get away from areas in North Africa.” In a BBC interview, a Ukrainian politician spoke of his “emotion” at seeing “European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.” His interviewer did not try to set him straight.

In a statement, the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association noted that such framing wrongly casts war outside of Europe and North America “as somehow normal and expected,” thus dehumanizing those who suffer under it. So, too, did the comedians Trevor Noah and Michael Che. “It’s a tough subject to make jokes about,” the latter quipped on SNL. “In my lifetime I’ve seen footage of attacks like this on other countries, but never a white one.”

Critics have also argued that the volume of coverage of the war in Ukraine itself represents a double standard when contrasted with the relative lack of attention that Western media pays to conflicts elsewhere in the worldas Magdalene Abraha, a writer with roots in Ethiopia’s Tigray region, where a war has raged since 2020, told NPR, the wall-to-wall coverage of Ukraine has been “fantastic” but “it would be good to have this kind of attention to all crises relating to war, famine and natural disasters.” In a similar vein, some have noted that current references to “freedom fighters” and “refugees” read very differently to past coverage of “terrorists” and “migrants,” especially in the Middle East and Africa. “Many Western journalists, public figures, and news consumers are failing to apply their skepticism evenly,” Ishmael N. Daro wrote for The Nation, with much Ukraine coverage “remarkably free of controversy regarding potentially millions of refugees fleeing to safety in other countries, the right of civilians to engage in armed resistance, or the ethics of economic and cultural boycotts against states violating human rights.”

Related: Brent Renaud, Yevhenii Sakun, and the grave dangers on the ground in Ukraine

Others have pushed back on the pushback, arguing, among other things, that Russia’s war in Ukraine warrants more attention because it could easily escalate into a global conflict with a nuclear-armed superpower. That’s a big worry. But it doesn’t explain why coverage focused on Ukrainian suffering—which has been rightly prominent, and often excellent—has dwarfed the attention the media collectively pays to human suffering in other warzones. As Moky Makura of Africa No Filter, a group that works to dispel stereotypes about the continent, wrote for CNN recently, “The ‘unthinkable things’ that happen in places like Africa are typically reported in terms of issues, numbers and trends—rather than the people, the emotions and the lives destroyed.” And it certainly can’t account for the coverage that has cast Europe as too civilized for war—an assertion that is not only racist about other parts of the world but also laughably ignorant. Today’s foreign correspondents may not have lived through World War II but many should be old enough to remember the Balkan wars, not to mention the many times since then that Western powers have invaded or otherwise intervened militarily in farther-away countries.

The double standards here are immediately important, shaping our empathy and understanding not only of the war in Ukraine but of those that are still ongoing elsewhere. And it strikes me that they are not the only example of bias that has crept into Western coverage of Russia’s invasion. If critics have paid valuable attention to how some in the media are framing this war differently to others, it’s also worth examining how assumptions that always shape Western coverage of conflict are manifesting here again. In the broadest sense, mainstream Western media has been pretty united in denouncing Russia’s invasion—a far cry, it would seem, from the bellicose punditry and credulous reporting that legitimized the US invasion of Iraq, for example. But old modes of war coverage can manifest in subtler ways, too.

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One age-old criticism has been that US networks, in particular, are overly reliant on “expert” pundits with professional and financial ties to the US national-security establishment and defense industry, and rarely give a platform to longstanding anti-war activists. That’s happening again with the Ukraine war. (Just yesterday, CBS News added H.R. McMaster, Trump’s national security adviser, as a “foreign policy and national security contributor.”) These pundits are (mostly) not apologists for Putin’s invasion—far from it—and they do have expertise relevant to the current moment. Nor do they always agree. But they are not experts in the sense that media people often understand that word—an authority figure who can help put an issue or debate in its proper context—as much as actors often steeped in a particular foreign-policy worldview.

The experts to whom news consumers are exposed influence what they think about the war, and US policy “options” with regard to it. So does the language that they, and we, use. While it is part of our job to convene debates between insightful people, it is not our job to present asymmetrical policies as two equal sides of a coin or to hide the ramifications of those policies behind euphemistic language. As Putin has escalated his war, we’ve heard demands, from US foreign-policy elites but also from Ukrainian leaders, for a NATO “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, sometimes preceded by the adjectives “limited” or “humanitarian”—language that sounds de-escalatory but would actually entail direct military confrontation with a major nuclear power. Since the Biden administration and politicians and analysts from across the political spectrum oppose a no-fly zone as liable to start World War III, this view has gotten plenty of media airtime, and the policy has been characterized in similar ways by some prominent news reporters. But other journalists have too often bandied about the term without adding much context. This is highly consequential. Polls have already shown that public support for a no-fly zone can recede dramatically when it is characterized as an “act of war” or similar.

Western media’s overuse of antiseptic military jargon strikes me as itself descending from the wrongheaded notion that war is something that happens over there, far from everyday consequences for most citizens even when our governments are prosecuting them in our name. (As Vox’s Zack Beauchamp wrote last week, calls for a no-fly zone, in particular, feel like “relics from prior wars waged under unquestioned American supremacy, unburdened by the prospect of great-power war and nuclear escalation.”) Such thinking is complacent and we should be wary that it doesn’t enter, even implicitly, into the ways we’re framing the war in Ukraine. Panic is rarely helpful in news coverage, but it’s vital that we be clear, careful and consistent in defining the global stakes here.

This also brings us back around, of course, to the racist double-standard problem; the two share common roots. The biases that are often present in Western coverage of war and the biases that are making the coverage of this war different both ultimately reflect ingrained assumptions about global power dynamics that are not only morally indefensible, but factually untenable. The war in Ukraine is a tragic opportunity for the Western press to interrogate and shed these assumptions, an act that, done properly, should not distract from the immense suffering of the Ukrainian people but help us see it even more clearly, in a universal context.

As the CJR contributor Maria Bustillos wisely put it yesterday, “I don’t want to hear from pundits, I want to hear from Ukrainians and Poles and the people this is happening to. The reason there’s more awareness of this crisis is that there’s more contact with the people who are really in it, and that’s how media should be.” Everywhere.

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Jon Allsop is a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in the New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, and The Nation, among other outlets. He writes CJR’s newsletter The Media Today. Find him on Twitter @Jon_Allsop.

TOP IMAGE: Ukrainian refugees arrive at Medyka border crossing on March 14, 2022. More than three million people have now fled Ukraine since Russia invaded on February 24, the United Nations said on March 15, 2022. (Photo by Nicolas Economou/NurPhoto via AP)