The coverage of the Ukraine war has exposed the Western media as never before, and if public opinion across the world is shaped mostly by Western media analyses, we should be quite concerned.
In the face of crises, especially wars, the media should play an objective role, provide non-partisan information, present deescalating feedback, further rational discussion, and document the truth. Though complete objectivity is likely to be impossible, the Western media’s coverage of this particular war runs counter to these goals.
True, the invasion of Ukraine is a terrible catastrophe, and the consequences of it will reverberate far and wide. However, the Ukraine war has received more media coverage than any other conflict around the world.
The reasons are obvious if highly arbitrary: Ukraine is in Europe; Russia, the aggressor, is a nuclear power; and Western interests are being threatened. Just one query, though: when the US bombs other countries around the world, isn’t it a nuclear power, too?
Let’s look at how the Western media is failing its followers around the world. First, it considers the Ukraine war to be worthy of coverage and deserving of the sympathetic ear of the public while minimal attention is spent on similar issues elsewhere. By not focusing on all the other crises, it deems them insignificant and lets the world assume they don’t exist, which sends a biased message.
The Western media, rightly worried about Ukrainian children, reports that 4.2 million of them have been displaced, whether within Ukraine or abroad. However, 5.2 million Yemeni children are at risk of starvation, and 85,000 have already died of hunger, but very little coverage is given in the Western media to the conflict in Yemen.
Furthermore, although 1,100 civilians have died in Ukraine, as many as 500,000 people have died from war and famine in the Tigray Region of Ethiopia over the last 16 months. But coverage of the Ethiopian War is non-existent in the Western media.
Second, the Western media has become a mouthpiece for Western views, serving as state media rather than an independent entity. The US academic and intellectual Noam Chomsky says in his book about the Western media, Manufacturing Consent, published in 1988, that “the media serve and propagandise on behalf of the powerful societal interests that control them.”
Though the Western media hails unbiased and impartial reporting in the present war, it corroborates the Western message while downplaying the Russian side of the story whether or not it is valid.
Russian reports are considered to be lies that do not deserve to be investigated further. The following message appears on Twitter after the Russian News Agency Tass’ reports, “this Tweet links to a Russia state-affiliated media website,” shedding doubt on what the Russian News Agency says.
The Western media is also repeating Ukrainian propaganda without any verification of it. The Ukrainians have some right to bend the truth to encourage the allegiance they need, but the media must scrutinise what they report so that disinformation does not become the norm.
“Russia could have lost as many as 15,000 troops in Ukraine,” announces the Washington Post. “Putin humiliated, as captured bomber pilot says, ‘we have already lost this war’,” according to the UK Daily Express. The US magazine Newsweek says that “captured Russian pilot says he was ordered to hit civilians,” which, if he did indeed say this, makes us wonder if he was tortured, but this ethical aspect is not pursued.
Third, the war on Ukraine has highlighted racial prejudice in the West, which is mirrored in the Western media, exposing an odd rule of thumb – that the Ukrainians are superior to Ethiopians, Middle Easterners, and other victimised souls. Labelling the war as “Europe’s first major land war in decades,” exemplifies this bias. It means that such wars don’t happen in Europe but that they are normal elsewhere.
The examples are numerous and are repeated daily starting with Western officials and then repeated by the Western media. Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor David Sakvarelidze, says, “it’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.”
The media pursues the same tone. “These are not refugees from Syria; these are refugees from Ukraine… They’re Christian; they’re white. Then, they’re very similar [to us],” Kelly Cobiella, the US NBC News correspondent says.
Philippe Corbe, a journalist on the most-watched French TV news channel, said that “we’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin; we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.”
Daniel Hannan in the UK Daily Telegraph wrote that “war no longer happens in impoverished and remote populations.” US CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata said that “this isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose those words carefully, too – city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.”
I wonder what he would have said if he hadn’t chosen his words carefully.
Hoda Osman, president of the New York-based Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association, in an interview with the US network CNN said that “what is sad this time is that the [offending] comments came so casually, spontaneously, and as a result revealed existing bias, something we would expect a journalist covering an international event to be above.”
The Western media’s role in misleading the Ukrainians is also pivotal. It highlights Western financial support for Ukraine, encourages Ukrainian resilience, and reports on the sanctions the West is imposing on Russia and the Western companies that are pulling out of Russia, while all the while telling the Ukrainians to stay the course regardless of warning them of what such actions could cause.
No Western media reporter talks about de-escalation or peace in Ukraine. These are issues that are not worth tackling. Ben Sixsmith in the Washington Post says that “journalists should not massage the facts and spin narratives to make them more favourable to the Ukrainians.”
In his usual comic but logical fashion, the US TV host Jon Stewart in a podcast on media reporting in Ukraine said that the reporting is no longer about what is happening but is actually about shaping the news.
As a result, questions of the following nature are the ones that get the most attention. “Would you bomb them if they touched Poland?” “Would you bomb them if they had a drone?” “What would it take for you to bomb them?” “How about bombing them?” “We have a question for you. Bombs. What about those?” “What if Putin got killed?” “What if we killed Putin?”
Stewart doesn’t believe that the Western media has a liberal bias but thinks that it has a bias towards sensationalism and escalation and conflict. He continues that “I don’t think that journalists are sitting in the White House Press Corps saying, ‘please, please a big war.’ But they definitely know that this is an opportunity of a lifetime.”
Journalists are not neutral. As a result, we, members of the generally uninformed public awaiting news from sources we have come to rely on, must be wary of what we are presented with and how it is presented. We must learn to sift through the information we are receiving, so that we can draw our own conclusions.
* The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 31 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.