Brave journalists have long risked their lives to document the horrors of war. But why has coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine felt so intimate, so explicit and so shockingly gory? Does this say something about the times we live in, and the ability technology has given us to broadcast — and consume — just about anything? Or does it reveal more about the news media’s own affinities and biases?
The war in Yemen, now in its eighth year, has been every bit as brutal. The war in Syria has been far deadlier, and both regime forces and Islamist militants have employed chemical weapons. Yet in those and other conflicts, we were not shown such raw and immediate images of the dead, among them the now-iconic New York Times close-up of a mother and two young children killed by Russian mortar fire in the Kyiv suburb of Irpin.
It’s not that journalists didn’t see and document such atrocities in other wars. Photos of children starving in Yemen, or the image of Phan Thi Kim Phuc running naked down a road in Vietnam after being burned with napalm have shocked the conscience. But news organizations traditionally have been squeamish about publishing images of people who had been killed in conflict, with an especially strong taboo about showing victims’ faces.
As an editor, I helped police those boundaries. Our goal was to inform readers while preserving the dignity of the dead and their families. We aimed to avoid turning our customers’ stomachs to no productive end.
That was before social media, however. In 1994, when the bloodiest genocide since World War II took place in Rwanda, there was no way for observers to capture incidents of mass slaughter with the cameras on their phones and then instantly disseminate the images worldwide. The husband and father of those victims in Irpin first learned of the death of his family from pictures he saw on Twitter. In that moment, “I lost everyone and lost the meaning of life,” he told The Post.
Mainstream news organizations could reasonably ask themselves whose sensibilities they imagine they’re protecting, given the ubiquity of social media. They could also point to other contexts in which showing images of people as they died and after their deaths were universally considered to be in the public interest — the nine-minute cellphone video of Derek Chauvin’s knee on George Floyd’s neck, for example.
Still, I have to wonder whether something more than technology is involved in the way this war, as opposed to other wars, is being presented. The unmistakable subtext of the coverage is: These are people just like us, and we could be at risk like them.
The vast majority of the victims in Ukraine are European, White and Christian. Quite a few speak at least a little English. With their puffer coats and their rolling suitcases, they look familiar as they climb onto the trains that speed them into exile. Their children play with Muppets dolls and Legos.
Whether intentionally or subconsciously, news organizations make this war more vivid and more tragic by focusing so tightly on victims and refugees. We get to see them as individuals, not as an undifferentiated mass. Viewers and readers are invited, if not forced, to imagine ourselves in similar circumstances. It is no wonder that so many members of Congress, reflecting the views of their constituents, are pressing the Biden administration to intervene more robustly, despite the obvious risks of entering an armed conflict with Russia.
Civilians killed and displaced by the 2003 invasion of Iraq suffered no less grievously. But the fact is that we rarely get intimately acquainted with the victims (who, in that case, were neither European nor White nor Christian) when U.S. forces are the ones firing the cruise missiles and lobbing the artillery shells.
I don’t believe these are willfully biased decisions being made by editors. And I have nothing but awed respect for the reporters covering the Ukraine war, including Brent Renaud, the American journalist and filmmaker killed on Sunday at a checkpoint outside Kyiv.
“This was not his first war. This was not his first highly complex situation. He was not a cowboy,” said Ann Marie Lipinski, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, where Renaud spent the 2018-2019 academic year as a Nieman fellow. “He was such an unusual man, with a very deep sensitivity, a shyness that made people at ease. There was a profound humanity about him. It was okay to love your subject.”
Bless the journalists with that kind of courage and compassion. And may the same empathy be extended to war victims everywhere who are every bit as human as the people of Ukraine.
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