The disproportionately high level of news coverage of the war in Ukraine is driven by geopolitics, the economics of the news business, and racism, according to an online conversation hosted last week by The New Humanitarian.
Speaking from a range of perspectives – non-Western media consumer, humanitarian ethicist, refugee, and professor of journalism – four panellists sat down with moderator and TNH CEO Heba Aly to discuss why some crises get more attention than others.
- Patrick Gathara, media critic and award-winning political cartoonist based in Nairobi, who recently wrote an Op-Ed on the racism and hypocrisy of the media and broader international response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
- Hugo Slim, humanitarian ethicist and senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, who argues that the West’s focus on Ukraine is perfectly justified.
- Mel Bunce, Head of the Journalism Department at City, University of London, who recently conducted research on how coverage of humanitarian crises affects aid funding.
- Mustafa Alio, Managing Director, Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT), which recently called for all refugees fleeing Ukraine, including Africans and Afghans, to be treated equally.
- Heba Aly (moderator), CEO, The New Humanitarian, whose reporting specifically focuses on forgotten crises.
Here are some key takeaways:
Is Ukraine getting too much coverage?
A recent report by The New Humanitarian found that the amount of news attention received by other humanitarian crises pales in comparison to the constant flood of articles on the war in Ukraine. Outlets have been devoting their entire homepages to Ukraine coverage: On 2 March, for example, 20 of 22 items on the BBC’s “World” page were Ukraine-related stories. Those of Al Jazeera and others had similar ratios.
“It's been quite a lot of full hours dedicated to showing not just what's happening [in Ukraine], but also delving into personal stories, humanising the victims,” said Patrick Gathara, a media critic and political cartoonist based in Nairobi, Kenya. “This is all great and good and should be done.”
But it’s a different story for other crises: “In many cases, victims are presented as collectives, not really as individuals. The stories that are told don't tend to be as granular and to allow people to really identify with the people who are suffering,” Gathara said. “And it leads us to ask: Does all suffering count the same way? Do we then privilege the suffering of some above others?”
“The ultimate wrong thing to do is start comparing and playing that victimhood competition, because [those] who suffered and who fled understand more than anyone else.”
While noting that it’s important to avoid falling into a game of “who gets the most attention", Mustafa Alio, a Syrian refugee who is managing director of the advocacy group Refugees Seeking Equal Access at the Table (R-SEAT), felt conflicted seeing the disparity in coverage between Ukraine and Syria. Both conflicts share the aggressor of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, as well as painful imagery like hospitals being targeted and people fleeing en masse. However, they were not treated the same, Alio said.
“The ultimate wrong thing to do is start comparing and playing that victimhood competition, because [those] who suffered and who fled understand more than anyone else,” he said. “But at the same time, it is sad that our voice and our stories were not as equal in the eyes of the international community, or even the media.”
Hugo Slim, a senior research fellow at the University of Oxford, where he specialises in the study of ethics, war, and humanitarian aid, felt it was unfair to compare coverage of a crisis in its “start-up phase” to coverage of protracted crises that have lasted for years.
“In a sense, we're making a judgement on double standards from the first peak point of a new crisis where everything does spike, where all the celebrity journalists are sent to bed down in the key spot for the first few weeks,” Slim said.
But that doesn’t account for why recent alleged massacres in Mali and Ukraine received such different levels of attention even when they happened almost at the same time. So why does this disparity in the quantity and quality coverage exist? The hour-long discussion focused on the role of three factors – the geopolitical significance of Ukraine, the economics of news, and racism in reporting.
‘A geopolitical flashpoint’
Speakers noted that events in Ukraine undoubtedly carry a unique global significance, not only due to the risk of nuclear conflagration between NATO and Russia but also because of the economic and geopolitical repercussions reverberating around the world.
“The difference with some of the anxiety and hype about this conflict is that it is genuinely a geopolitical flashpoint. That border between NATO and Ukraine is a different border to the one around the Mediterranean and Syria and others,” Slim said. “It also triggers all sorts of very primal fears about the big enemy coming towards us [Europeans].”
“I think many people who are suffering now – whether it's in Syria and Somalia – would say their conflict is much more important than what's happening in Europe.”
The conflict’s impact is being felt in real terms around the world, too. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has changed global prices of food and fuel, and is arguably already influencing events from Lebanon to Yemen, from Peru to Sri Lanka.
Pushing back on the notion of a “more important conflict”, however, Gathara emphasised the very different lenses through which stories are seen.
“It depends on where you're standing,” he said. “I think many people who are suffering now – whether it's in Syria and Somalia – would say their conflict is much more important than what's happening in Europe.”
Where does the news come from?
Part of the problem is that only a very limited number of news organisations have foreign correspondents around the world. The ones that do – like AFP, AP, Reuters, BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN – mostly serve the Anglo-centric world, said Mel Bunce, head of the journalism department at City, University London.
“These organisations are primarily serving an audience in the Global North. They're paid by subscribers and audiences in those countries, and they're primarily making news for those audiences,” Bunce said.
News values dictate that journalists report on that which is out of the ordinary or unexpected.
“That's very subjective. What we mean is something unexpected to that audience in that country,” Bunce said. “If this audience is really concerned about these issues, those concerns are represented in this media, and that media ripples around the world.”
That’s in part because those news organisations that don’t have expansive reach rely on the news wires that do. So international news coverage is quite homogenous.
Even news channels in Africa are inundated with Ukraine coverage, said Gathara. Meanwhile, ongoing humanitarian crises in much closer proximity on the continent tend not to garner as much attention – in part because even African media get much of their coverage from international news wires like AP and Reuters. “They're taking their cue from the Western press about what's important,” he said.
Media can also reflect domestic biases, especially in times of international conflict when national foreign policy takes centre stage. Bunce, along with her colleagues Martin Scott and Kate Wright, studied the news organisations that report on humanitarian crises and disasters.
“There are so few – really truly few – that you could say occupy a kind of global, cosmopolitan outlook that's genuinely divorced from the nation-state and following those humanitarian principles of all lives being truly equal,” Bunce said.
Is the coverage racist?
Many commentators have argued that racial bias is also at play in explaining disparities in the coverage of crises in the Global North and the Global South. Sometimes subtly – but often overtly – major news networks have differentiated between victims of the war in Ukraine and those from conflicts elsewhere using racist undertones. For example, several broadcasters referred to Ukrainian refugees “with blond hair and blue eyes” and talked about them being “civilised”, as if those fleeing from places like Syria or Afghanistan were not.
Much of the coverage also intimated that war is more acceptable when it happens in the so-called Global South than in Europe.
“To be honest, it's not new,” Gathara said. “There's an expectation that Africa, Asia, or Latin America is where you will find wars, is where you will find corruption, is where you will find all sorts of tragedy, but not in more – shall we say – whiter locales. I think that needs to be challenged.”
“Imagine if there is an open call for people to go fight in Yemen, or in Syria, or in Palestine and what would be the rhetoric around it."
Both Gathara and Alio pointed out a double standard in how conflicts are covered in different places. Substitute Ukraine for a country in the Global South, they say, and the broadcast on TV might look completely different.
“The open call for people to go and fight in Ukraine is basically viewed as heroic. Imagine if there is an open call for people to go fight in Yemen, or in Syria, or in Palestine and what would be the rhetoric around it,” Alio said.
As Aly put it, Western media present Ukrainians making Molotov cocktails as heroes but Palestinians throwing rocks as terrorists, raising the quesiton: Whose resistance is legtimised?
Speakers also noted the contrasting treatment and depiction of asylum seekers as European countries welcome Ukrainian refugees with open arms but continue to treat others with mistrust or disdain. R-SEAT, Alio’s organisation, recently put out a statement asking the international community to treat all refugees equally. But audience members pushed back against the suggestion that this was simply down to racism, pointing again to Ukraine's geopolitical significance as a key reason for the increased attention and generous welcome.
What are the implications for humanitarian aid?
If certain crises get more attention, does that translate into more humanitarian aid funding? Bunce and her colleagues had already studied this precise question. They interviewed senior decision-makers in 16 of the world’s largest donor countries, asking them about their process for making aid decisions.
“When it came to their humanitarian aid allocation budget, if there was sudden intense news coverage of an event, that could influence how much emergency aid money they gave,” Bunce said. Even though the high-profile aspect of the Ukraine crisis puts it in a different category, she said it was likely a lot more money would go towards it because of the news.
The numbers seem to reflect this. The UN’s flash appeal for Ukraine is now almost 60% funded, one of the fastest and most generous responses ever. On the private donations side, the Disasters Emergency Committee, a fundraising group for 15 of the UK’s biggest aid charities, just crested £260 million for their Ukraine appeal. The New Humanitarian has also heard concerns from humanitarian coordinators that aid to other crises is beginning to be diverted to Ukraine.
While this outpouring of monetary support from both governments and private citizens seems lopsided, Slim argues that Ukraine’s proximity to Western Europe – one of the epicentres for donor aid – rationalises the abundance.
“Is that okay, that largely Western donors would give a lot of money to a country right next to the EU that they feel is a really important country?” Slim asked. “In a world where you cannot do everything, you're often required to choose, and I think people close to you do count. I think that can be morally important.”
So what are the prospects for improvement in the way the media covers crises? Gathara, unfortunately, didn’t expect any fast reform.
“Media has shown itself to be very resistant to change. And lots of the tropes that we see now and lots of the ways of reporting are so baked into how the media is both set up and does its job. It’s going to be very hard to turn that ship around,” he said. “I think the best we can hope for, perhaps, is that there'll be more awareness amongst journalists, when they go into the field and encounter these other crises, of the inherent double standards that they might bring to it, or the inherent biases they might bring to it.”
Bunce predicted that an increased emphasis on the role of the free press in democracy will lead to increases in funding and support for media. Even if not, she finds hope in the influence of the coverage on Ukraine.
“It really illuminates how good news coverage can be, what empathetic, powerful, highly skilled reporting can be when it's given enough time and space.”