SANITISING WARHow the UK Media Turned Its Back On Syria
In failing to report on individual instances of war’s devastation, the media risks losing sight of the inhumanity of conflict
Press coverage of the Syrian war has decreased over time, and massively dropped after 2016, according to new report by the charity Action on Armed Violence [AOAV].
Its analysis – of the online outlets of BBC News, the Guardian, MailOnline and Al Jazeera English – shows that, collectively, they went from covering 6.8% of all recorded harmful explosive incidents in 2016 to just 0.8% of attacks in 2017.
This drop was despite 2017 being the deadliest year for civilians from explosive weapons in the entire conflict.
AOAV analysis also suggests that it was domestic British political attention around Syria that influenced online English-language reporting of civilian suffering – not a reflection of the actual levels of harm being met by civilians.
The suffering seems inevitable, relentless and unsolvable. The hopeless and repetitive nature of the war influences what is considered newsworthy.
Overall, the review of thousands of news articles on the four main media platforms shows that they reported just 8% of the total Syrian civilians killed from explosive violence. On average, only 5% of explosive weapon injuries were covered, and this declined as the conflict went on, indicating an erosion of detailed reporting.
Whilst major incidents of explosive violence made the headlines, the relentless small-scale destruction of lives and neighbourhoods slipped under the radar.
Losing Our Humanity
Since the civil war began in March 2011, Syria has consistently been one of the worst countries affected by explosive violence in the world.
Between 2011 and 2019, AOAV recorded 87,524 casualties caused by explosive weaponry there. Of these, 85% (74,100) were civilians. But such harm was – at least on an incident-by-incident level – not captured by the major media outlets examined.
A number of factors are at play in war reporting.
The frequency of international news stories in UK newspapers has been declining for decades and further financial pressures in the past few years has meant that funding for foreign reporting is even more scarce. This is combined with practical difficulties on the ground: Syria was not like Vietnam. Accessing the war was difficult and extremely dangerous. Plus, news agencies are stretched thin and, in conflict, accurate reporting is notoriously hard.
But editorial decisions on which incidents to cover, what type of explosive weapon is prioritised in that coverage, how many dead or injured makes an attack ‘newsworthy’ and whether coverage drops off over time, are ones made every day in newsrooms.
Ultimately, news is responsive to events and its audience. People won’t engage with relentless misery – the flippant ‘news is too depressing’ mantra – and editors know this. They pre-empt what an audience may say: ‘If a thousand people were killed in Syria last year, why should I be surprised if it’s happened again?’ The suffering seems inevitable, relentless and unsolvable. The hopeless and repetitive nature of the war influences what is considered newsworthy.
“Our media review highlights how editorial decisions can lead – in the end – to a combined failure to report on the magnitude of war’s harm,” says AOAV’s executive director Iain Overton. “If, concerned there are ‘too many’ war reports from a country, an editor disinvests in reporting on that conflict, then news – ultimately – becomes sanitised.
“But war is grinding. War is an accumulation of individual horrors. And, if we turn away from such, we not only lose sight of the inhumanity of others, we risk losing a little bit of our own humanity along the way too.”
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