It is not an understatement to say that in the past few weeks, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has become the world’s most pressing issue. From New York City to San Francisco, Americans have been taking to the streets to protest. All across the world, monuments — including the Sydney Opera House, the Eiffel Tower and even Michigan’s own Burton Tower — have been shining the Ukrainian flag’s colors. Even on March 27 at the Oscars, 30 seconds of silence were dedicated to express support for Ukraine.
There is no doubt that the world’s passionate support for Ukraine is a beautiful thing to witness; Ukrainians have been brutalized and need the support of a united international community. However, the extent to which the crisis has dominated media coverage makes me wonder, what about an issue warrants how much coverage it will receive?
Did you know that Ethiopia is currently in its 16th month of a civil war that has amassed a death toll estimated at around half a million, forced 2 million people from their homes and hundreds of thousands of Ethiopians into starvation and led both sides to commit horrendous war crimes? Because I didn’t. Nor did I know of the civil war in Cameroon that is, reportedly, only getting worse. Or looking to the past, one of my friends told me that she first found out about the Rwandan Genocide, during which around 1 million Tutsi and Moderate Hutus — Rwandan ethnic groups — were massacred, in band class when her teacher wanted to teach the class how to play a tribute for the victims. She didn’t learn about it from a history class or textbook but from her band teacher.
My own gaps of knowledge became clear when my Sri Lankan friend shared how during the Sri Lankan civil war, which only ended in 2009, her parents were forced out of their own home by North Indian soldiers who needed a place to stay, stealing her grandmother’s sari in the process. Only upon further research did I learn about the atrocities that Sri Lanka’s Tamil people faced at the hands of the Sri Lankan army; the fact that Tamil forces were killed after trying to surrender was particularly shocking to me. There have been so many wars, atrocities and innocent lives lost throughout history and in the present. But the fact that we only hear about some of it scares me, and it should scare you too.
One conclusion that I reached for why the people of Ukraine might be getting so much attention is because of who they are fighting. Our history with Russia is complicated, to say the least. The Cold War is a prime example of the power struggle the two countries have continually found themselves in, in recent decades. And so, with that context in mind, if Russia is reverting back to its imperial and Soviet era expansionist ambitions, it makes sense that it would be a big deal to the U.S. On top of that, it is also a nuclear power. That shouldn’t need any more explaining. Moreover, unlike the divisive Israel-Palestine conflict, here there is a clear enemy who most all international observers can rally against. But while these factors may be a part of why there is more media coverage on Ukraine than the ongoing wars in Africa, I believe the real reason is for a much simpler reason: Ukraine is a European country.
I am sure there are some who would disagree, but in my eyes, the root of this issue can once again be traced back to one thing: systemic racism. The evidence of this claim can be seen in how news reporters are describing the situation. Taken straight from the Deputy Chief Prosecutor of Ukraine’s recent interview, he said, “It’s very emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed.” Once again, it goes without saying that it is a shame innocent people are losing lives over this conflict.
However, to insinuate that these deaths are sadder because those being killed are European is very clearly an implicit nod to the racist mindset many people still have. A similar comment was made by Lucy Watson, an ITV news correspondent, when she said, “The unthinkable has happened…this is not a developing, third-world nation; this is Europe!” This is a much less subtle comment and very clearly demonstrates that Watson, and I’m sure many others, look down on developing nations and overlook the very serious issues that plague them. Why? Because the people are not blond with blue eyes.
Internalized racism isn’t something that is going to go away anytime soon. As systematic and ingrained as it is in the world, sometimes it makes me wonder if it will ever go away. But in situations like this we can see the bigger consequences it can have on people’s lives. Namely, through the impact media coverage can have on the world’s response to an issue. A study surveying senior government decision-makers found that intense news coverage creates pressure on those people that in the past has led to an increase in emergency aid allocations. One example the study cited of this trend was the Beirut blast which received more humanitarian aid than it normally would have due to media coverage. So not only does wider coverage spread more public awareness but it can also be the cause of real change.
I know the world isn’t black and white and that there is a lot that goes into news reporting (like ratings). But though it can be hard to keep people ‘interested’ in longer crises, it isn’t impossible, and there are ways for journalists to report that can keep people engaged. Magdalene Abraha, a London-based writer originally from Tigray, Ethiopia, has said she wishes news reports could talk about what’s going on in Ethiopia with the same “enthusiasm and heart” that she has seen in the coverage in Ukraine. She thinks if journalists gave the same attention to Ethiopia, reporting on “vivid characters” and “the real people who are affected — people with thriving careers, passions, relationships, goals,” then maybe more people would care.
With a similar intention in mind, Omar Bizo, the manager of a nonprofit organization in Niger, had the suggestion of allocating a certain percentage of airtime to a crisis, broadcasting special roundtable discussions of the topic or even giving money to local journalists in the conflict area. The point is this is an issue that can be addressed and, more importantly, should be addressed.
The fight for equality has never been an easy one; in the 1800s it meant fighting against Jim Crow laws and now it entails pushing back against people’s subconscious beliefs. I’m not saying we need to take down the entire system right this second, but we can take baby steps. And one such step has to be better media coverage. If people are losing their lives at the hands of a military of a distant African country, I’m not sure what you and I can do about that. But, if people are losing their lives due to a lack of humanitarian resources and public awareness about the conflict, well, there is certainly more to do.
Palak Srivastava is an Opinion Columnist & can be reached at email@example.com