Mar 6, 2022 - World
Axios Explains: Ukraine

Ukraine crisis coverage reveals stark biases

Illustration of a pair of glasses with static in the lenses.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Media outlets are apologizing for the way they've been discussing the war in Ukraine.

Why it matters: Subconscious biases against non-white refugees have surfaced amid the flood of news coverage.

Driving the news: Al Jazeera apologized for comments that Peter Dobbie, a presenter, made on air when he described Ukrainians fleeing their country as "prosperous, middle-class people," “obviously” not refugees fleeing the Middle East or North Africa: “They look like any European family that you'd live next door to.” 

  • In a statement, the network said the comments, which social media users described as racist, were a breach of its commitment to “impartiality, diversity and professionalism” and that it would be “dealt with through disciplinary measures.”
  • CBS News’ Charlie D’Agata said he “used a poor choice of words” and apologized “for any offense I may have caused” after earlier insinuating that countries like Iraq or Afghanistan are “relatively” uncivilized.
  • French network BFM TV told the AFP that journalist Philippe Corbé "regrets" that his "clumsy" comments ("We’re not talking here about Syrians fleeing the bombing of the Syrian regime backed by Putin, we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives") were "taken out of context."

The big picture: Around the world, journalists have drawn scrutiny for making similar remarks — as have politicians and pundits

  • “This is not a developing, third-world nation. This is Europe," journalist Lucy Watson reported on ITV News from Kyiv.
  • The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association (AMEJA) said in a statement: “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. It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected."

What they’re saying: “One thing that we're seeing is an undeniable desensitization of journalists towards imagery around the Middle East and that kind of suffering,” Mahdis Keshavarz, board member with AMEJA, tells Axios.

  • The fact that many of these statements were made live on-air, in the heat of a moment or felt viscerally on the ground during a live report, reflects how “subconsciously embedded” the framework is of the Middle East as a geography of violence or Africa as a geography of disease, Maytha Alhassen, fellow of religion and public life in media and entertainment at Harvard, tells Axios.

Threat level: Public trust in the media is already at an all-time low

  • “We are doing a disservice to our readers and our viewers, but we're also doing a disservice to our staff in these newsrooms,” Keshavarz says.
  • Ultimately, the views can also “perpetuate prejudicial responses to political and humanitarian crises,” AMEJA adds.

The bottom line: “The implicit bias that many are holding and using is continuing to do damage,” says Keshavarz.

Axios' Sara Fischer contributed to this report.

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