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ISU professor says context and clear-sightedness are key to following media coverage of the war in Ukraine

People coming from Ukraine descend from a ferry boat to enter Romania after crossing the Danube river at the Isaccea-Orlivka border crossing between Romania and Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022, as Ukrainians flee their country following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
Daniel Mihailescu/AFP via Getty Images
People coming from Ukraine descend from a ferry boat to enter Romania after crossing the Danube river at the Isaccea-Orlivka border crossing between Romania and Ukraine on Feb. 26, 2022, as Ukrainians flee their country following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

If you've been consuming sources of Western media for any length of time, you may have noticed a tonal difference in the coverage of conflict between Ukraine and Russia, following the latter country's invasion on Feb. 25, versus conflict coverage in other parts of the world — non-European parts of the world, in particular.

The days immediately following the invasion were rife with examples of implicit bias surfacing in the descriptions and reports from white, Western journalists on the conflict.

A correspondent on CBS news, Charlie D'Agata, used the word "civilized" to describe the geographic location of the war, saying it "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... city."

A British writer published in The Telegraph that what made the war so "shocking" is that its aggressors and its victims "seem so like us. ...War is no longer something visited upon impoverished and remote populations. It can happen to anyone."

Still yet, an Al Jazeera anchor said a "compelling" factor of looking at the refugees fleeing Ukraine was "the way they are dressed, these are prosperous... I'm loath to use the expression... middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees looking to get away from areas in the Middle East that are still in a big state of war. These are not people trying to get away from areas in North Africa. They look like any European family that you would live next door to."

Aside from showing a biased and racist belief that some people or areas of the world are more prone to conflict due to being less "civilized", Illinois State University's Ali Riaz, a distinguished professor in the Department of Politics and Government, said in an interview with WGLT that such coverage fails to present the historical reality that war in Europe is not an anomaly.

Ali Riaz
ISU Distinguished Professor Ali Riaz will give an address marking his award on November 9 at the Bone Student Center.

"This is not the first conflict in Europe — not even in the last 15 years," he said. "It gives the wrong impression. What the media needs to understand is that there's a history; this conflict has not emerged out of nowhere. —1990 is not the beginning of history. There have been other conflicts in Europe where we have seen wars take place and there has been genocide as well. We simply cannot forget that."

Riaz added that beyond a "dehistoricization" of the matter among some Western media, the coverage of the refugee crisis of Ukrainians has been more sympathetic than that of other groups, such as Syrians or people fleeing North African or Middle Eastern countries.

"I'm not surprised in the sense that this has been the case with the Western media: that a conflict in the Middle East, or a conflict in Asia or Africa is seen as inferior — or something that is 'out there,'" he said. "Suddenly, the humanitarian crisis in Ukraine seems to be a 'big thing,' but humanitarian disasters are the same in that people suffer. We need to put those things in context and understand these elements instead of trying to whitewash the whole thing, as if the Ukrainian crisis is bigger than it was with people with a different kind of skin complexion."

Riaz said some of the coverage has "laid bare that kind of bias."

"Every life matters, whether he or she is dying in Iraq, in Palestine or Ukraine and we need to understand that. That is why the Western media is failing — miserably failing."

The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalist Association issued a statement late last month calling "on all news organizations to be mindful of implicit and explicit bias in their coverage of war in Ukraine."

"AMEJA condemns and categorically rejects orientalist and racist implications that any population or country is “uncivilized” or bears economic factors that make it worthy of conflict. This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia, and Latin America," the statement read. "It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected."

"Newsrooms must not make comparisons that weigh the significance or imply justification of one conflict over another — civilian casualties and displacement in other countries are equally as abhorrent as they are in Ukraine."

Riaz said those who see instances of racism or implicit bias surfacing in the war coverage should not feel hesitant to call it as it is. He said the recent examples of disparity in conflict and refugee coverage leave no question that large organizations have "institutional racism" to reckon with.

"We, as a consumer, have a responsibility to identify these things because bias clouds not only the judgement of policymakers who are watching, but the individuals who are watching it," he said. "It should not continue. We live in a very integrated world, a very close-knit world we need to take care of each other — we need to treat everyone equally."

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