Crisis, conflict reporting unveils bias in western media


Photo courtesy of envato elements.

Anjali Noel Ramesh, Editor in Chief

In a live report from Kyiv, Ukraine Feb. 25, Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata said “But [Kyiv] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades, you know, this is a relatively civilized, 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.”

In using the words “civilized” and “European” to describe the conflict in Ukraine, D’Agata not only undermined the universal trauma as a result of war, but also implied the over 241,000 deaths since 2001 in the Afghanistan and Pakistan war zone, and over 200,000 deaths since the U.S. invasion of Iraq, were of little consequence. 

The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine unveiled the inherent cultural bias of Western media outlets and the imbalance in reporting depending on external factors and context. D’Agata was one of multiple reporters and news organizations in western media who made conflict-related claims embedded in racism. 

In response to the impact of the rise in Ukrainian refugees on neighboring countries, National Broadcasting Company correspondent Kelly Cobiella stated, “Quite frankly, these are not refugees from Syria. These are refugees from neighboring Ukraine. These are Christians. They are white. They are very similar to people living in Poland.”

People seeking help have little to no control over the circumstances that displaced them. To claim one person deserves assistance over another because of “similarities” between them and the countries providing sanctuary is a cruel abuse of power and inaccurate, unjust reporting. 

The West discriminatorily eyes catastrophe through a bureaucratic lens, even when human suffering is at the forefront.

Reporter bias has always been prevalent, despite its recent upsurge in the media. In 2006, CARMA International released a report on the western media coverage of humanitarian disasters, specifically considering Hurricane Katrina, the 2004 Indian ocean earthquake and tsunami, the ongoing crisis in Darfur, the 2005 Kashmir earthquake, the 2003 Bam earthquake and Hurricane Stanley. Despite Katrina’s lower death toll—1,833—compared to the other disasters, the primarily southeastern U.S. hurricane prompted over 1,035 articles from the nine analyzed media corporations in the study. The second-highest number of articles concerned the Indian ocean earthquake and tsunami, which had a death rate of about 230,000 and displaced millions, but generated barely over 500 articles. Additionally, 15% of the 500 articles written by the eight western countries analyzed in the report were focused on the deaths of westerners, despite them making up just 0.87% of the total casualties. 

Even though five out of the six disasters were in and affected Asian, African and South American nations, 40% of all articles written on the six disasters recounted the experience of westerners, an amount far too large for issues with significantly more relevance to non-westerners. Media outlets were clearly partial to publishing content on people from their own community, regardless of the fact that this was entirely an issue of human welfare.

The Kashmir earthquake in Pakistani-administered Azad Kashmir and the Bam earthquake in Iran received similar amounts of western media coverage—around 100 articles within the first 18 months since the event—a mere tenth of the pieces on Katrina. In this case, however, another type of bias was revealed, as about 10% more of stories on each of the disasters discussed economic or political applicability rather than the adversity faced by the people. The West discriminatorily eyes catastrophe through a bureaucratic lens, even when human suffering is at the forefront.

This is not to say fatality rates should determine the coverage of an event, as not one taken life should be disremembered, but the media unfairly takes economic impact and political retaliation into account when reporting humanitarian emergencies. It is of utmost importance that media markets prioritize the toll of disaster on all human life prior to its impact on governmental affairs. Cultural divides do not provide cause to claim violence should be normalized and ignored in one nation, and glorified in another. When journalists take on crises stories, there is no guidebook as to what events to cover and how much, rather, an ethical emphasis is placed on bringing equal, unbiased light to all human lives.

How do you believe media outlets should prioritize what they cover? Let us know in the comments below.