In February 2021, the Ethical Journalism Network (EJN) was awarded funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, through their Power and Accountability programme, to fund a project to identify and begin to address structural racism in UK journalism. The resulting policy report, published in March 2023, provides an overview of the challenges that Black journalists are facing in the British news media. Read and download the report below.
The case of Ukraine
The war in Ukraine began dominating the headlines in the UK media in February 2022. The impact of an event such as this, with such significant implications for security, the economy and migration, will be felt globally and should of course be a leading story. However, coverage of the Ukraine war has been condemned for its biased language and racialised narratives which continue to preserve stereotypes of countries largely in the Middle East, Africa and Asia. There was also criticism of the amount of coverage dedicated to the crisis in Ukraine in comparison to other ongoing crises in countries such as Yemen, Syria, and Eritrea for example.
An issue that I had was with the Ukraine war. For the first couple of days, I literally could not, as a journalist, as a person, engage with the Ukraine war. And the reason why I couldn’t engage is because I’m an immigrant. I see how immigrants are treated on every level. We didn’t have this for the people from Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria. There was no help, there was no humanity, there was no support. It literally hurt my heart. Even talking about it gets me upset. To see the outpouring – not that they absolutely don’t deserve it – it hurt my heart to see the outpouring of support, knowing that if it was my family, that wouldn’t be the same for me.
Some of the criticism stemmed from coverage in United States and other countries. February 26 2022, provided two examples of racialised commentary. A CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata’s commented that Kiev “isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilised, relatively European – I have to choose my words carefully here – city”. Similarly, when reporting on people fleeing Ukraine, the NBC News reporter Kelly Cobiella’s commented that, “These are not refugees from Syria. These are Christians or white”.
The UK news media also displayed highly problematic coverage of the crisis. In the Daily Telegraph on the same day, in an article entitled “Vladimir Putin’s monstrous attack is an attack on civilisation itself”, Daniel Hannan wrote, “They seem so like us. That is what makes it so shocking. War is no longer something visited upon by impoverished or remote populations. It can happen to anyone”.’
On the 27th February 2022, when the BBC interviewed Ukraine’s Deputy Chief Prosecutor, David Sakvarelidze, who said live on air “It is very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed”, the presenter replied, “I understand and respect the emotion”.
On the same day, Al Jazeera English presenter Peter Dobbie described Ukrainians fleeing the war as “prosperous, middle-class people” who “are not obviously refugees trying 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.”
Again, on the same day, a report by Lucy Watson at ITV News stated that “now the unthinkable has happened to them. And this is not a developing third-world nation. This is Europe!”.
On March 4th Sky News included a video of Ukrainians in the city of Dnipro making Molotov cocktails to resist the invasion in stark contrast to similar coverage from Afghanistan, Palestine or South Africa over the years being labelled as acts of terrorism.
A report published by Asylum Access looked at the implications of the language used by the US and European media when reporting on the Ukraine crisis. It found that it not only reflects racism against non-European refugees but is also impacting and informing discriminatory migration and foreign policies. The report notes that:
Journalism plays a huge role in telling the story and forming perceptions and terms that the world uses about refugees. Therefore, reporters have the responsibility to become advocates for the human rights of all refugees and make sure that the suffering of people is communicated and reflected equally. Additionally, journalists have a responsibility to report the discrimination they might witness against refugees without using terms that devalue them as humans.
The Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists’ Association (AMEJA) released a statement in which they warned news organisations of coverage which attributes “more importance to some victims of war over others”. This raises questions around impartiality and due prominence in news selection and reporting. Writing in March 20222 on Open Democracy, Marcus Ryder, the former BBC journalist now Visiting Professor at the Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity at Birmingham City University, argues that “Racist war reporting undermines trust in the media” and “will have viewers switching off”. Ryder notes that journalists often conflate the importance of a particular conflict with the degree of sympathy that is attributed to its victims:
This all matters not simply because journalists should adhere to principles of equality and anti-racism, but – possibly more importantly – because statements like these undermine the very trust people of colour have in mainstream news outlets and, in turn, increases the probability they will turn to other news sources.
Trust in the news is already at an all-time low. According to a report published by Reuters Institute in June 2022, people are selectively avoiding news stories, including coverage of the war and crisis in Ukraine. As a result, people are consuming news via platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and increasingly TikTok, although some of this is information generated by the mainstream news organisations.
The importance of inclusive and accurate journalism is becoming more widely recognised as integral to the development of a responsible and full-functioning media ecosystem that serves the interests of all citizens. The case studies outlined above – the reporting on CRED, the Ukraine war and race-related reporting – demonstrate that inclusive journalism is still limited as is accurate reporting on race-related topics. They also show that without a wider look at the inclusion of Black journalists within the media ecosystem, the possibilities for inclusive journalism will remain severely restricted.
Author: Dr Aida Al-Kaisy | Publication design: Mary Schrider | Cover image © RyanJLane/iStock