Western mainstream media outlets have come under fire for what critics call “racist” and “white supremacist” coverage that paints Ukrainians as being more worthy of the world’s sympathy—than citizens in similarly strife-torn Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Yemen—because they are “white.”
Reporting from the front lines in Kyiv, foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata, who has two decades of war reporting experience, said, “This 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 city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”
“I have to choose those words carefully too,” he added as a disclaimer.
D’Agata later apologised, but it was too late.
The news clip featuring D’Agata’s live exchange racked up more than 1.5 million views on social media and attracted thousands of angry comments. “It’s as if he’s saying that those countries are raising people that deserve the destruction,” wrote a CBS viewer on its YouTube channel. On Twitter, the outrage was palpable as users were quick to point out the problematic nature of D’Agata’s comparisons of countries in conflict.
“I wonder what would lead someone like Charlie D’Agata to think it is [OK] to compare the value of peoples' lives and who qualifies as ‘civilised,’” Cornell history professor Mostafa Minawi wrote. “As someone who has lived through wars and invasions with the world watching, I deeply empathize with the Ukrainian people. The deeply racist coverage has been very telling as well.”
But CBS wasn’t the only news network airing questionable views. NBC News correspondent Kelly Cobiella also came under fire for stating the following on air: “These are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine... They’re Christian, they’re white, they’re very similar [to us].”
“The unthinkable has happened,” exclaimed a female correspondent reporting from Poland for Britain’s ITV. “This is not a developing, third-world nation—this is Europe!"
And on BBC, Ukrainian politician and prosecutor David Sakvarelidze told the presenter, “It’s really emotional for me because I see European people with blue eyes and blonde hair being killed, children being killed everyday with Putin’s missiles and his helicopters and rockets.”
The British broadcaster’s press office has yet to issue an official statement or comment about the views expressed on air. Speaking anonymously because they are not authorised to speak on the matter, a London-based TV producer working at the BBC’s Broadcasting House headquarters told VICE World News that the situation was “conveyed well” given the nature of live interviews. “Our pundits and guests go through strict screening procedures but this was an unfortunate incident,” the producer said.
Media watchdogs said the coverage of the Ukraine crisis revealed long-held biases by Western societies.
“This type of commentary reflects the pervasive mentality in Western journalism of normalizing tragedy in parts of the world such as the Middle East, Africa, South Asia and Latin America,” wrote the Arab and Middle Eastern Journalists Association in a statement. “It dehumanizes and renders their experience with war as somehow normal and expected.”
“Newsrooms must not make comparisons that weigh the significance or imply justification of one conflict over another—civilian casualties and displacement in other countries are equally as abhorrent as they are in Ukraine,” the group added.
Political scientist Ian Chong from the National University of Singapore told VICE World News that these views showed a disparity in the sympathy Western societies have for Ukrainians on the ground, as compared to war refugees from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They also reflect several problematic attitudes.
“Civilian casualties and displacement in other countries are equally as abhorrent as they are in Ukraine.”
“The first is a certain ahistoricism. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is clearly terrible. However, it forgets the horrible ethnic cleansing that happened in the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. That is Europe too,” Chong said. “The second is a normalization of a view that Europe ought to be peaceful and prosperous.”
“Thirdly is a view that wars happen in far-off places that are poor and affect people who do not look like Europeans or the majority of people in North America,” he said. “This discounts the fact that a number of conflicts in these distant parts of the world were exacerbated, supported by or even involved states in Europe and North America.”
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