American media’s approach to war coverage needs to be fundamentally reimagined

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Source: The Washington Post

American media’s approach to war coverage needs to be fundamentally reimagined. We need more reporting on forgotten conflicts — and more stories that spotlight how war ravages people and leads to atrocities.

Last month, the big three U.S. television networks spent as much or more time covering Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as any other conflict during any month of the past three decades — including the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. The war in Ukraine is receiving the attention it deserves, but we have seen troublingly little coverage of raging conflicts in other parts of the world. Yemen’s civil war, for example, received 92 minutes of coverage on the three broadcast networks from 2015 through 2019 — compared with the 562 minutes of coverage Ukraine received in March 2022 alone. The Tigray War in Ethiopia receives only occasional mentions on any channel –– even though researchers estimate the conflict has killed as many as 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 only 13 minutes reporting on what one historian called “the least reported war since World War I.” (That is, until it came time for cable news to decry the United States’ long-overdue withdrawal.)

Worse, the coverage that does exist tends to frame war in the abstract: What’s the strategy? Who’s “winning” the war? Recent Ukraine coverage notwithstanding, rarely does the media report war’s devastation on individual human beings. This obscures war as a force that displaces people from their homes, robs them of their loved ones, and strips them of the chance to have a life and a future.

Throughout coverage of the Ukraine crisis, we have heard from scores of pundits shocked that war could happen in a so-called “civilized” country. But violence on this scale should always be horrifying. Hunger, sickness and death are attributes of war no matter where it is fought.

Too often, war coverage is characterized more by punditry and bombast instead of truth-telling and de-escalation. Throughout the Ukrainian crisis, columnists and elected officials alike have obsessed over painting President Biden as “weak” compared with Russian leader Vladimir Putin — with one journalist questioning Biden for “ruling out World War III.” At a White House news briefing last week, reporters pushed press secretary Jen Psaki on why the United States wasn’t doing more to arm Ukraine, instead of asking about diplomatic solutions that might avert further civilian casualties.

Furthermore, cable news’s featured security, intelligence and military experts consistently include former government officials who consult for weapons manufacturers and defense contractors. These conflicts of interest should be avoided altogether, but failing that, imagine if every former defense official who scored a cable news spot was joined by a refugee directly impacted by conflict — centering the discussion on the people who are experiencing war’s brutality firsthand. People on the ground have real stories that deserve to be heard before it’s too late. After the U.S.-led siege of Mosul, Iraq, in 2016 and 2017, for example, a journalist tried to track down residents he had spoken with during the fighting — only to find they were all dead or missing. (More than 40,000 civilians died during the siege, according to Kurdish intelligence.) Focusing on who’s “winning” a conflict can easily lend support to escalation; discussing human suffering could at least begin to lead to alternatives.

Examples of a better approach to war coverage are easy to find. The New York Times recently released an important investigation on the human toll of U.S. drone strikes. Last year, The Post published a powerful piece on the plight of refugees caught in the Tigray conflict. And Human Rights Watch can be relied upon to cover the suffering caused by forgotten conflicts.

But there is 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 broadcaster Deutsche Welle published profiles of Yemeni citizens whose lives had been thrown into chaos by civil war. One of the people they spoke with made a heartbreaking plea that applies not just to Yemenis but to all victims of forgotten conflicts: “Let our voices be heard. Let our victims be seen, support our children to live in peace and enjoy their lives like others do around the world.”

Katrina vanden Heuvel, editor and publisher of the Nation magazine, writes a weekly column for The Post. She has also edited or co-edited several books, including “The Change I Believe In: Fighting for Progress in the Age of Obama” (2011) and “Meltdown: How Greed and Corruption Shattered Our Financial System and How We Can Recover” (2009). Twitter

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