oDR: Opinion

Racist war reporting undermines trust in media

Racist language in the coverage of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will have viewers switching off, writes veteran former BBC journalist Marcus Ryder

Marcus Ryder
2 March 2022, 2.52pm
A child refugee at Lviv station in Ukraine
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Copyright: Bel Trew/The Credit: Independent/Alamy Live News

We need a media we can trust – this is particularly important in times of war.

In recent days, I have been worried that some of the media coverage of the Ukraine war is actively undermining that trust in established media organisations, especially among people of colour and certain marginalised sections of the audience.

I will explain why I am so worried, but first I need to state two facts. Firstly, that war reporting is one of the toughest assignments any journalist will have during their careers, and that many journalists covering the conflict in Ukraine are doing an incredibly important job under incredibly difficult conditions. Secondly, that we are not human if we do not have sympathy for the victims of the terrible war that is currently being waged by Russia against the people of Ukraine.

These two facts may seem so obvious and self-evident that they need not be stated, but I am about to criticise one important aspect of that excellent journalism, and discuss the sympathy we should all have for victims of war.

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In understanding how journalists report conflicts, we must separate the relative ‘importance’ and global strategic significance of a war from the degree of sympathy we should have for its victims.

Journalists and news editors have to make tough editorial decisions about the relative importance of different conflicts around the world almost every day. Some conflicts may lead the news agenda, others will hardly be covered, and then there are a few – such as the current war in Ukraine – that may receive wall-to-wall 24-hour coverage.

I fully understand why a war involving a superpower (Russia) on European soil may be deemed (rightly or wrongly) more significant than other conflicts.

But the fact that a conflict may be thought of as relatively more important because it is taking place on European soil should not be confused with the idea that we should be more sympathetic to the victims of a conflict because they are European.

Unfortunately, too many journalists appear to have conflated these two issues.

Statements like these undermine the trust people of colour have in mainstream news outlets

News reports that try to increase an audience’s emotional connection to European victims by drawing comparisons to how the victims are people “just like us”, when this type of comparison hasn’t been used when reporting other conflicts, sends out the signal that we should value them more because they are European. 

Journalism that draws comparisons to how similar the civilian Ukrainian victims are to British victims of the Second World War (during the Blitz) when similar comparisons have not been made to civilian victims of bombings in other parts of the world sends out a similar message.

Stories that directly highlight that this conflict is more dramatic because “Ukraine is not a ‘Third World’ country” can feel like a ‘dog whistle’, with “not a ‘Third World’ country” really meaning ‘white’. Similar points have not been made when reporting on any of the numerous African, Asian and South American countries that sit above Ukraine’s 133rd global ranking in terms of GDP per capita.

These are all real examples of what journalists have said over the past few days.

This all matters not simply because journalists should adhere to principles of equality and anti-racism, but – possibly more importantly – because statements like these undermine the very trust people of colour have in mainstream news outlets and, in turn, increases the probability they will turn to other news sources.

How can people of colour have trust in the editorial judgements of a newsroom that actively seems not to value their lives to the same extent as they value white European lives?

This obviously does not just have consequences for news reporting about Ukraine, but it may have the knock-on effect of causing people to question the fundamental news values of media organisations and all the stories they cover.

Finally, there is one very large, and obvious, issue that casts a long shadow in all our discussions on how the British media report global conflicts. Only around 0.2% of British journalists are Black. When it comes to the ethnic backgrounds of UK foreign correspondents, figures are scant – but anecdotally the picture appears to be even less diverse.

In the three examples I cited, and there are many more being highlighted across social media, all of the journalists I have seen – directly or indirectly, consciously or subconsciously – placing a higher value on European lives are white.

Until we have a more representative media that can change the culture of how stories are framed and reported, I believe newsrooms will continue to make these mistakes.

Let us hope for a speedy and peaceful resolution to the war in Ukraine and let us hope for a more representative media that values all lives equally.

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