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Racist Media Coverage of the Russian-Ukrainian War

by Sasha Estrella-Jones
March 2022

In this three part article series, we will review media coverage of the war, so far, the double standard of western foreign policy; and why it all matters. In the last article of the series, we will review what you can do.

Currently, we are in the third week of Russia’s brutal war on Ukraine and much is still to be determined. With so many unknowns there is one thing that has remained true: widespread support from the International community for the Ukrainian people as they defend their land and fight for their autonomy.

From mounting sanctions to global protests the message is clear: we, the collective West, stand in solidarity with Ukraine and support Ukrainians defending themselves against the military occupation of Russia.

Let’s be clear, Ukrainians deserve our support and solidarity in all forms. Ukrainians have the right to take up arms as they defend their land, their livelihoods, their culture and their lives. The Ukrainian people and their government deserve even more support from Western powers who, it can be argued, have yet to exhaust all of their resources in ending Russia’s inhumane war on Ukraine and innocent civilians. This article was not written to argue those points.

This article instead takes a critical look at how mainstream Western media outlets have covered the Russian-Ukrainian war from a racist, Eurocentric and Islamophobic lens. It is the first in a special series that seeks to deconstruct and contextualize blatantly anti-Arab, anti-Black and Islamophobic media coverage of war. It is important to discuss how and why Western media coverage of war is racist, because that allows us to better understand how biased war coverage directly relates to a hypocritical, double standard in U.S. foreign policy in the Arab, African and Muslim worlds.

From NBC to BBC, the unchecked, explicitly racist media coverage of the Russian military invasion of Ukraine exposed long-held biases for what type of people and what places in the world is war deemed acceptable by the West. Mainstream western media outlets have used Ukrainians’ Whiteness, European-ness and Christian-ness as a means for humanizing Ukrainians. That type of humanness, one that is wrongfully dependent on being and synonymous with White, European and Christian, has then been used as the basis for which Ukrainians are undeserving of war.

No human deserves to experience war. When mainstream Western media use racial, geographic and religious identifiers as the qualifiers for human, their rhetoric becomes dangerous to all non-White, non-Western, non-Christian peoples.

For example, CBS Senior Foreign Correspondent, Charlie D’Agata, described Ukraine as “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 - city, one where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope it's going to happen.” By reserving the term “civilized” for Europeans, D’Agata called Iraqis and Afghans “uncivilized”. What D’Agata and CBS at large said without saying it is that European is synonymous with “civilized” and “human” and that Europeans’ civility and humanness is what makes war in this region surprising.

When Iraq and Afghanistan are discussed as strictly places for war, we completely disregard, disrespect and minimize both groups' humanness, along with their rich contributions to history, literature, arts, cuisine, medicine, architecture and the sciences. For thousands of years Iraquis and Afghans influenced and inspired other cultures throughout the world, but in one breath their histories are reduced to only war. (For those who need a quick world history refresher, Google 'Mesopotamia and the Indus Valley Civilization'. You’re welcome.)

The people of Iraq and Afghanistan are just as human as anyone else; thus, their lives hold intrinsic importance and should be treated and discussed as such. The language used by D’Agata and CBS is not unique; there is a widespread one-sided, “war torn” depiction of Arab, African and Muslim majority countries by mainstream Western media outlets.

BBC was no better, when it allowed Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, to state “It’s very emotional for me, because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed.” Again, Ukrainians Whiteness and European-ness were the basis for which they were deemed “undeserving” of being a casualty of war. What could have been a moment to call out dangerous racist language and thinking was instead met with “Sir, of course, I understand and respect the emotion.” by Ros Atkins, a seasoned BBC interviewer. In other words, what BBC said without saying it was that, if you are White or European it is unfathomable that an atrocity like war could directly impact you, cause you harm or kill you. When war is viewed as something that only happens in “far away places” that have been “othered” by mainstream media and Western politics like the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, the lie that the West is neither participatory in or affected by war is falsely reinforced and sold to Americans and Europeans. NBC continued the trend of racist reporting when correspondent Kelly Cobiella said “Just to put it bluntly, these are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from neighboring Ukraine…These are Christians, they’re White, they’re very similar people.” Again, we see another example of Ukrainains being portrayed as deserving of international support and in particular being taken in and protected as refugees, based on their Christian-ness and Whiteness.

What Cobiella and NBC are saying is that, we can understand why Syrian refugees are not protected and deemed worthy of collective support by the International community. Syrian refugees, along with all other non-White, non-Western and non-Christian refugees, have to earn the right to be protected. By contrast, we are told that because these Ukrainian refugees are “Christians”, “White” and “very similar people”, they are by default “more human” and “more relatable” and thus, their protection as refugees comes automatically and without hesitation.

The examples that have been given of mainstream Western media participating and centering racist rhetoric and imagery in their coverage of war are not anomalies, they are the status quo. By covering war from a racist, Eurocentric, anti-Black, anti-Arab, Islamophobic lens, Western media dehumanizes all peoples who are not White, not from the western world and are not Christian. This reductionary approach in its depictions of and reportings on wars by Western media outlets is dangerous and violent. While we reduce our framing of the non-Western world to themes like war, corruption and poverty, we simultaneously allow countries of the West to have complex and nuanced histories.

The worlds’ most foul and inhumane atrocities, from world wars and colonialism to genocide and slavery, have either been directly funded or committed by the West, happened on Western occupied and controlled foreign territories or occurred on the continent of Europe and America. However, a privilege unreplicated elsewhere is granted to the White majority, Western world; the West is allowed to have an ugly history, yet not be reduced to the worst crimes it has committed and human right abuses it has funded and participated in.

And it is not just the history of the West; present-day countries of the Western world both directly and indirectly participate in wars and fund human rights’ abuses globally. Yet, those stories seldomly make the news or generate the same kind of international outcry, sanctions and subsequent collective support for the oppressed the way we are seeing in the Russian-Ukrainian war.

While this article has spoken on how mainstream Western media outlets are covering the Russian-Ukrainian war from a blatant and undeniable racist, Eurocentric, Islamophobic lens, that is only part of a larger picture.

As critical thinking consumers of news we must ask ourselves: Why does this privilege and these double standards exist? Who benefits from Western media outlets covering war in a racist and reductionary way? Who gets to report the news? Could there be a connection between media coverage and Western foreign policy? If so, what is it and why does that link matter?

The next article in this series will answer those questions, as we seek to gain a deeper understanding and insight into the relationship between Western media outlets’ coverage of war and U.S. foreign policy.