With so many wars across the world, a new one supplants the previous on our TV screens and front pages. As conflicts drag on, the attention of the public moves on too.
When Russia invaded Ukraine two years ago, that war began to dominate the news cycle, displacing coverage of Myanmar, Sudan and Syria. But, as the months wore on, the Ukraine war, too, slipped from our screens. Now the war in Gaza has captured global attention, but for how long?
“You know, if you’ve covered conflict before, that the world’s focus is fickle. And there will be a point where the cameras shift. … As a journalist who becomes obviously invested and cares and talks to people and makes friendships with people when you’re on a front line, you almost feel like it is a betrayal.”
Why is it that while the human suffering never gets less tragic, we seem to have only a finite amount of empathy for the victims of conflict? And what is the effect on our creeping ambivalence?
For Bel Trew, chief international correspondent at The Independent, this decline in interest has become something she learns to anticipate at the start of every war she covers. “You know, if you’ve covered conflict before, that the world’s focus is fickle,” she tells New Lines’ Faisal Al Yafai. Whether in Gaza, Ukraine, Myanmar or Syria, “There will be a point where those cameras shift, the spotlight shifts. … As a journalist who becomes obviously invested and cares and talks to people, and makes friendships with people when you’re on a front line, you almost feel like it is a betrayal.”
For Trew, the importance of continuing to cover these conflicts lies in showing the full effect of war, despite knowing her audience might be mostly interested in how the conflict might affect them. “The most important thing that we can do is show people just how devastating war is, so that it’s not just turned into what’s essentially a game of armies and the playground of the battlefield. But people want to know how this is going to impact them.”
Nabih Bulos, Middle East bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, wants his audience to understand that they often have a degree of complicity in a faraway conflict and what that actually means. “I want people to really understand what it means when a politician or a soldier says the phrase surgical strike. I want them to understand what it means when they’re going into a country or establishing a no-fly zone,” he says.
The veteran correspondents note that some conflicts are easier to report on than others, and many change as the conflict progresses. Bulos remembers the battle against the Islamic State group as offering a great deal of freedom for reporters, who could embed with different units in the Iraqi army freely.
But, as Trew notes, that’s not always the case.
“Another issue with forever wars is that access becomes quite difficult,” she says. “You end up telling the same story again and again.”
Furthermore, she notes that as conflicts progress and subsequent events can incur ever higher casualty figures, statistics can become meaningless. “We had the clearing of Rabaa,” she says, remembering the 2013 massacre of protesters by Egyptian police, in which more than 1,000 were estimated killed. “A few weeks later, there were 66 people killed in a protest, which would normally be a very high number of unarmed protesters to be killed,” Trew recalls. “Because we’d already had 1,000 [casualties], people got desensitized.”
As numbers start to lose their meaning, you have to focus on human stories, Bulos suggests. “The enormity of those figures means nothing to people, and the only way to bring it home to people is to focus on the smaller stories,” he says.