War Coverage May Depend on Who’s Involved

What the reporting in Ukraine says about how we value different peoples

War Coverage May Depend on Who’s Involved
Julia Gereasumenko and her pets, Garfield the cat and Yoda the dog, take shelter underground in Kyiv / Marcus Yam / Los Angeles Times

This piece was originally published in New Lines magazine’s Just Landed newsletter, which you can sign up for here.

In the lead-up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and during its early hours, all eyes were on the story. Some observers started saying that despite being thoroughly necessary and deserved, this global investment in the Ukrainian cause, by the international community and by the media, has been somewhat different from that which has historically been devoted to other conflicts around the world. Some of those observers hinted publicly that, to the West, some victims of war might be deemed as more valuable than others.

On the second day of the invasion, a tweet by a Los Angeles Times correspondent who was in Ukraine at the time of writing, in which he said something to the same effect, caught my attention. A former NBC News correspondent disagreed and wondered how we can consider the type of attention Ukraine is getting is different from that which countries like Syria and Iraq have received for years, saying that “we reporters worked our a** off in Syria for years. … We spent dangerous years in Iraq.”

Initially, I feared it would be biased of me — as a Syrian — to think that Syria did not get the kind of interest from the West as Ukraine is getting now, I thought that both correspondents in question have a point: Have we been merely assuming the worst, especially knowing how many correspondents risked and indeed sacrificed their lives in order to tell the story of the Syrian revolution and war?

But, later that same day, no doubt was left as to how accurate this observation was.

“These are prosperous middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees getting away from areas in the Middle East … these are not people trying to get away from areas in north Africa,” said Al Jazeera English anchor Peter Dobbie on live TV. “They look like any European family that you would live next door to.”

“We’re not talking about Syrians fleeing the bombardment of the Syrian regime, backed by Vladimir Putin,” said Philippe Corbé on the French TV channel BFM, where he is the head of the political department. “We are talking about Europeans who are leaving in their cars, which are similar to our cars.”

Those two videos, and several others, have been going viral for days, and their content was addressed in important statements by groups like the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) in the United States and the Foreign Press Association, Africa (FPAA).

This time, the comments were being uttered by news presenters and foreign correspondents on international media outlets such as CBS and ITV, not on Tucker Carlson or Sean Hannity’s Fox News shows. Nevertheless, I daresay the degree of racism in some of those videos would have created a stir even if it were Carlson or Hannity who said them.

For instance, Charlie D’Agata, a CBS foreign correspondent who has reported from the Middle East and elsewhere around the world, said on air that Ukraine’s capital, unlike cities in Iraq or Afghanistan, “is a relatively civilized, relatively European” city.

What D’Agata said immediately after calling Ukraine relatively civilized and implying that the Middle East isn’t was “I have to choose those words carefully,” which left me curious as to what the non-minced version of his words would have sounded like.

But in his apology, which came a day later at the very end of an update on the situation in Ukraine, D’Agata apologized for his “poor choice of words.” Neither he nor CBS made a separate and clear statement for those who did not watch the original segment to find.

For Lucy Watson, a correspondent for ITV news, the worst part about the whole tragedy unfolding in Ukraine seemed to be that “this is not a developing Third World nation — this is Europe,” as she exclaimed in emotional disbelief while reporting on Ukrainian refugees arriving in a train station in Poland. To date, neither ITV nor Watson has issued an apology.

When I first moved to France, I met someone who asked me whether I knew what a microwave was and whether I’d ever eaten an avocado. I think she meant well because she otherwise was a very friendly and helpful person; she just did not know enough about that distant region, apart from what she hears in the media and what she learned at school. “Wow, this perception of the Arab world really does still exist,” I thought to myself.

Those correspondents, however, do know the region; more than one of them actually reported from there. They also contribute to shaping the vision of the region for someone like that French acquaintance of mine and therefore have extra responsibility to steer away from stereotypical representations of the region. But the comments we have been seeing went too far this time. Yet I thought we all knew that already.

I don’t think that, for many of those correspondents, the lives of non-Europeans are actually worthless, and some of their astonished colleagues have told me that they were shocked to hear those remarks because so-and-so “really isn’t like that in real life.” What I do know is that there is an underlying idea that the victims of the war on Ukraine deserve more sympathy because people there are not used to it, whereas people in the Middle East, well, that’s all they know anyway.

Journalists always want to help their audiences understand the significance of something by simplifying it in comparative and superlative terms: the biggest explosion the city has ever seen, the country’s most prestigious literary institution, the bloodiest conflict seen since World War II, etc. This is indeed useful and, a lot of the time, it’s accurate — but it should not always be one’s go-to means of explaining why the audience needs to care about something, especially when it starts to pick its favorites among victims of wars.

Learning from the experiences of other countries is useful and indispensable in these times, especially the war in Syria, one of the most documented conflicts in history, not least to teach us about today’s Russian military interventions and capacity to commit war crimes with no concern for the lives of innocent civilians. But it seems like some comparisons are easier to grab from the shelf, like comparing everyone we dislike to Hitler.

Furthermore, broadcast journalism aims at evoking certain feelings in the audience; I want to delve into this issue more deeply in a future newsletter. While this might explain the focus of some correspondents on this war being on the same continent as the headquarters of their media outlet and part of the audience, it does not justify making humanitarian catastrophes sound like a wild beast native only to poorer regions in the world that has now trod for the first time the “civilized” land.

So far there are only two apologies for such remarks made during the coverage of Ukraine, one by Al Jazeera for what Peter Dobbie said, stating that the company is dealing with the matter internally, and the aforementioned apology by D’Agata. But this should not be allowed to pass unnoticed or without some serious thinking about change.

In addition to apologizing to audiences, which may even be of secondary importance to people from the Middle East and Africa if compared with the dire need to reform international media’s view of other peoples and nations and their conflicts. This requires more work from correspondents, especially roving ones, and more care on the part of editors and managers to ensure that these incidents no longer occur and that, when they do, they are dealt with properly.

I asked my colleague and New Lines Editorial Director Rasha Elass, who covered the Middle East and the war in Syria for years, for her thoughts on this subject. I’ll leave you with her words:

Look, does it matter when the victim of war looks like you? Yes, we’re wired that way. Not rationally or intellectually, but on a very instinctual level. Neurologists will even agree. The human brain compels us to respond to our own species, our own tribe, our own family, etc. … Our brains haven’t changed since caveman times, and I’m certainly no different. When the war in Syria broke out and I started to hear my own mother tongue being spoken by both victim and villain, I felt a sense of devastation on the inside. That’s why I stayed to cover the story at great risk to my own life.

This also happened to me when the U.S. invaded Iraq many years ago. Remember “shock and awe”? I was living in New York City at the time, and U.S.-based media outlets were broadcasting the bombardment of Baghdad as if it were a video game. They seemed so detached from the idea that people were being killed live on TV while the anchors chatted about the “shock” and the “awe” of it all. I remember feeling a sense of devastation watching those reports. And actually, that was why I went into journalism in the first place. I wanted to tell the story of the Middle East, of “my people,” with fairness and compassion.

I mean, look, I don’t identify as “white European,” and I don’t speak Ukrainian or Russian, yet I very much identify with the people of Ukraine because, well, they too are “just like me.” Not just because they have iPhones and watch Netflix and love their pets, which they take with them to safety as war rages, just as I did with my two wartime cats by the way, haha. But more important, what makes us all the same as the people of Ukraine is that we all relate to the most instinctual thing of all, and that is to fight for self-preservation and to persevere.

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