A crisis in our news: the media is failing people of color

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Audrey Ghosh

Physically, Yemen and Ukraine are only four countries apart, yet reporters call wars in Yemen “uncivilized,” not doing the same in Ukraine. Moreover, Russia has committed many war crimes in Ukraine by purposely targeting civilians, behavior not deemed “uncivilized” by news outlets.

Uncivilized. The singular word echoes through the heads of countless Middle Easterners, used yet again by the West against people of color. But, surprisingly, this time, it is not the obnoxiously loud xenophobes being racist; the racist behavior, derogatory stereotypes and name-calling are from established news sources that Americans have grown up trusting. 

Currently, hundreds of news reports on the Russian invasion of Ukraine are being published from “trustworthy” sources such as The New York Times, BBC and CNN. But, as the serious issue receives this attention, a deplorable double standard between the coverage of Ukraine versus the Middle East is seen when such media outlets continue to debase and neglect current Middle Eastern conflicts.

For instance, merely four countries below Ukraine, Yemen is currently in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, with over 377,000 people dead and 17.4 million on the brink of starvation. In addition, the country is facing a multilateral civil war caused by the clashing Houthi insurgents and the Saudi-led coalition. But, chances are you didn’t know that because the top trending topics on CNN — one of those “trustworthy” sources — are: ‘This is Us’ finale, Zelensky, Russia-Ukraine and Russian missile.

Furthermore, media coverage is not just biased against Yemen. Tragedies around the globe, such as the terrorist insurgencies in Iraq, assassinations in the Middle East and civil wars in Africa, are all claiming non-European lives daily. However, still, media coverage of these victims of color is low.

Even when the media mentions the Middle East and its conflicts, it is in a negative light. While reporting from Ukraine, CBS News correspondent Charlie D’Agata said, “[Ukraine] isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — a city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” If those were the words chosen carefully, what was he, along with many others, really thinking? 

While the Middle East has seen a lot of conflict in recent years, it does not give reporters the right to make derogatory declarations, assuming these places are a lost cause or using words like “European” and “civilized” interchangeably. These globally-broadcasted claims give rise to reputations of these countries being filled with violence, terrorists and refugees. Even more concerning is the use of the word “hope.” Just because a place is considered “uncivilized,” at least by D’Agata, does not mean it deserves a war. If anything, people should be hoping to end wars there even more. With such irrational biases associated with the Middle East, people tend to distance themselves from conflicts there and eventually become apathetic to global, predominantly non-European issues. 

I hope someday everyone, regardless of social constructs, can at least be heard equally, especially when they are screaming for help.”

— Rand Alhachami

Although implicit racism and biased association may be a reason for the biased coverage, social studies teacher Kristen Collins postulates other motives. Collins has worked with the Pulitzer Center, a journalism organization in Washington D.C. that aims to cover underreported stories, to present global issues to her students. She believes the main problem lies in the structure of American media.

“The news, unfortunately, goes where they can sell the story. Of course, there is more coverage in Ukraine because it’s European. But, partly it is because America has a certain rivalry with Russia, and the war is at the doorstep of NATO allies,” Collins said. “Another reason is that the public can be very [distracted], moving on to the next shiny ‘object.’ We need appealing and eye-catching stories because most news sites get revenue when people click on these stories. Media companies have noticed that it is easier for the American public to identify with Ukrainians; it hits closer to home.”

And it is hitting closer to home, at least for the 76.3% white majority in America and 95% white majority in Europe. In a BBC interview, former deputy prosecutor general of Ukraine David Sakvarelidze said, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed, children being killed every day with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and his rockets.” 

This sentence begs the vital question: Would it not be as emotional if people with dark skin, brown eyes and black hair were killed? But, of course, victims are victims no matter their skin color, gender or sexuality. Still, our media and mindset prevent us from sympathizing with other humans by creating a divide based on physical differences and labels, such as “uncivilized.” 

A selective lack of coverage of non-European nations is forming a vicious cycle: Stories are covered, or rather not covered, due to racism against the Middle East and Africa. The same biased coverage also facilitates racism, as news reporters use negative commentary for the area. Regardless of the subjective reports, the lack of coverage in the Middle East may prove detrimental to improving conditions there. For example, with more news coverage about Ukraine, it is no wonder that 2 million Ukrainian refugees were immediately accepted into Europe. Yet the Syrian refugee crisis in 2011 led to millions of Middle Easterners not finding a safe place due to racist immigration laws denying refugees space in their countries. 

“The color of the refugees might play a big role in whether they are safe or not. The public wants to see Ukrainians as victims. They want ‘justice’ and ‘refugee equity’ as catchphrases when dealing with the Ukrainian invasion, so the media provides them with that. But it’s important to apply those same words to every war, regardless of where it’s happening,” sophomore Rand Alhachami said. Alhachami’s parents are refugees from the Second Persian Gulf War. “Most people do not realize there are countless Middle Eastern refugees trapped in violence. Refugees like my parents before they immigrated here. But as long as racism and biased coverage exist, the refugees are helpless”

The American media and the public need to review how implicit bias may dictate how we approach conflicts worldwide. Meanwhile, students and adults can begin to rectify this internal prejudice by being more responsible about the news they read. “It is easy to feel neglected and ignored. Obviously, the media seems to be more empathetic towards Ukraine and its refugees because it is a European war, not from Yemen’s ‘far off war-ridden’ lands. But I hope someday everyone, regardless of social constructs, can at least be heard equally, especially when they are screaming for help.”

If you would like to help, various charities are accepting donations for Ukraine, Yemen and other conflicts around the globe:

 

UNICEF YEMEN

WFP Yemen 

How to Help Syrian Refugees & Children | UNICEF USA 

UNHCR | Donate to help refugees from Iraq fleeing war and violence. 

UNICEF Ukraine

World Vision – Ukraine Crisis Fund