The problematic coverage of Ukraine
Comment writer Kanumera Creiche evaluates news coverage of the War in Ukraine and explains why it is problematic.
Maybe, like me, you’ve spent the last few weeks sat in front of your TV, browsing social media, listening to the radio, and looking at maps of how the Russian army is moving on Kyiv. Maybe, hidden in the flow of information and terrible images, some sentences have gone right past you, so you did not notice the danger and hurt they carry. But maybe they struck you right in the heart. As they should have.
Over the past two weeks, several media outlets have been criticized for their coverage of the war in Ukraine. Charlie D’Agata from CBS described the war and the refugee crisis as such: “This is not a place, with all due respect, like Iraq, like Afghanistan […] This is a relatively civilized, relatively European […] where you would not expect, or hope, that it is gonna happen”. These words are imprinted with racism and orientalism. British Al Jazeera Journalist Peter Dobbie made similar comments: “These are prosperous middle class people. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European families that you would live next door to”.
Giving asylum to people in need should not rest on criteria such as proximity, skin colour, or the way people live their lives
It is important to raise our voices against coverage like this which creates a narrative in which war in the Middle East is normalised and contrasted with a supposedly peaceful Europe. It implies that the lives of white European people carry more value than those of black and brown people – that it is more of a tragedy when white Ukrainian people have to flee their home than when Syrians are forced to. The Arab and Middle Journalist Association (AMEJA) released a statement in reaction to the controversial coverage: “this type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America […] It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected”.
This pernicious racism can be explained by the lack of diversity in Western newsrooms. For instance, in the US, 40 per cent of the population is non-white, but a 2020 Reuters Institute study found that for the top 10 online news outlets and top 10 offline news outlet only 11 per cent of top editors are non-white. In the UK, 94 per cent of journalists are white. These white-dominated newsrooms do not represent society and lack diverse perspectives in their reporting of the world. Not to mention that they get it wrong, which for journalists – who are supposed to truthfully report on events – is ironic. When journalist Dagniel Hannan said “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. Ukraine is a European country. Its people watch Netflix and have Instagram accounts […] War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations”, it showed great ignorance. In Iraq, nearly 30 million people out of its 40 million population use social media and Netflix is available in the Middle East.
always, but especially at times like this, humanity and solidarity should prevail
It is journalists’ responsibility to not perpetuate such narratives, but it is also their job to challenge those who talk in such a way. BBC anchor Ros Atkins apologised for not challenging Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor David Sakvarelidze who described the war as “very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed”.
However, journalism is not the only thing to blame. Moustafa Bayoumi, author and Brooklyn College Professor, wrote in The Guardian that the racist coverage actually reflects racist policies when it concerns the refugee crisis. First of all, it has been reported by several media outlets that many non-white people have been stuck in Ukraine: they have been prevented from taking buses, trains to cross the border and some were even beaten by Ukrainian authorities. The African Union released a statement to remind Europe that “all people have the right to cross international borders during conflict, and as such, should enjoy the same rights to cross to safety from the conflict in Ukraine, notwithstanding their nationality or racial identity”. Second of all, the Ukrainian refugee crisis highlights a clear double-standard perpetuated by European leaders. The words of the Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban illustrate it perfectly. Last year, he referred to Syrian refugee as “invaders”, but when it comes to Ukrainian refugees is willing to “let everyone in”.
It implies that the lives of white European people carry more value than those of black and brown people
But what do this racist coverage and discriminatory policies say about us? Giving asylum to people in need should not rest on criteria such as proximity, skin colour, or the way people live their lives. Moustafa Bayoumi argues that we should not be helping Ukrainians just because they resemble “us” and at the same time denying that same help to others because they do not look like “us”. This takes all of the humanity out of the gesture. And always, but especially at times like this, humanity and solidarity should prevail.