Reviews | The US media’s approach to war coverage needs a fundamental overhaul

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The US media’s approach to war coverage needs a fundamental overhaul. We need more reporting on forgotten conflicts – and more stories that shine a light on how war ravages people and leads to atrocities.

Last month, the three major American television networks spent as much or more time covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine than any other conflict in any month in the past three decades, including the 2003 US invasion of Iraq. The war in Ukraine is getting the attention it deserves, but we have seen, disturbingly, little reporting on the conflicts raging in other parts of the world. The civil war in Yemen, for example, received 92 minutes of coverage on all three broadcast networks from 2015 to 2019, compared to 562 minutes of coverage for Ukraine in March 2022 alone. Ethiopia’s Tigray War receives only occasional mentions on any channel – even though researchers estimate the conflict has killed up to 500,000 people and displaced 2 million more in less than two years. And in June 2021, just two months before Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, major cable networks spent just 13 minutes reporting on what one historian called “the least reported war since.” World War I”. (That is, until it’s time for cable news to denounce the long-awaited U.S. pullout.)

Worse still, the coverage that exists tends to frame the war in the abstract: what is the strategy? Who “wins” the war? Despite recent coverage of Ukraine, the media rarely reports on the devastation of war on individual human beings. It obscures war as a force that displaces people from their homes, robs them of their loved ones, and robs them of the chance to have a life and a future.

Throughout the coverage of the Ukraine crisis, we heard from dozens of pundits shocked that war could happen in a supposedly “civilized” country. But violence on this scale should always be horrifying. Hunger, disease and death are attributes of war, no matter where it takes place.

Too often, war coverage is characterized more by expertise and bombast than by truth and de-escalation. Throughout the Ukraine crisis, columnists and elected officials have been obsessed with portraying President Biden as ‘weak’ compared to Russian leader Vladimir Putin – a reporter who questioned Biden for ‘ruling out World War III’ . At a White House press conference last week, reporters pushed press secretary Jen Psaki to explain why the United States was not doing more to arm Ukraine, instead of asking about the diplomatic solutions that could prevent further civilian casualties.

In addition, the security, intelligence and military experts featured by Cable News routinely include former government officials who consult with arms manufacturers and defense contractors. These conflicts of interest should be completely avoided, but failing that, imagine if every former defense official who scored a cable news spot was joined by a refugee directly affected by the conflict – centering the discussion on the people who experience the brutality of war first hand. People on the ground have real stories that deserve to be heard before it’s too late. After the US-led siege of Mosul, Iraq in 2016 and 2017, for example, a reporter tried to track down residents he had spoken to during the fighting – only to find they were all dead or carried. disappeared. (More than 40,000 civilians died during the siege, according to Kurdish intelligence.) Focusing on who “wins” a conflict can easily escalate; discussing human suffering might at least begin to lead to alternatives.

Examples of a better approach to war coverage are easy to find. The New York Times recently published a major investigation into the human toll of US drone strikes. Last year, The Post published a hard-hitting article on the plight of refugees caught up in the Tigray conflict. And Human Rights Watch can be counted on to cover the suffering caused by forgotten conflicts.

But there’s plenty of room for more reporting that repositions war in the public consciousness as a tragedy to be avoided rather than a video game to be won. In 2018, German television channel Deutsche Welle published profiles of Yemeni citizens whose lives had been thrown into chaos by the civil war. One of the people they spoke to made a heartbreaking appeal that applies not only to Yemenis but to all victims of forgotten conflicts: “Let our voices be heard. Let our victims be seen, help our children live in peace and enjoy their lives as others do in the world.


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