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West's orientalist bias returns to the fore

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West's orientalist bias returns to the fore

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While Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has generated a wave of solidarity, it has also exposed the perennial racist biases in Western media and politics. The fight of ordinary Ukrainians against a much stronger occupying power, has been portrayed in glowing terms by many in the Western media.

The trouble is not in the glowing description of their valor, but the language used by reporters that betrays the basic journalistic norms of neutrality. The coverage by some prominent channels has been shockingly prejudiced and indicative of the ‘us vs them’ mentality.

CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata triggered a storm on social media when he said: “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades.”

“You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully, too — city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen,” he reported from Ukraine’s capital.

After severe backlash on Twitter and other social media, D’Agata apologized for his comments. But that wasn’t the end. A French news commentator said: “We’re not talking about Syrians fleeing bombs of the Syrian regime backed by Putin; we’re talking about Europeans leaving in cars that look like ours to save their lives.” And then several media practitioners from prominent outlets like Al Jazeera and the Telegraph came under fire for similar contentious comments.

Al Jazeera’s Peter Dobbie took the worst hit for his comments: “What is compelling is that just looking at them, the way they’re dressed. These are prosperous, middle-class people, these 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.”

The Express Tribune contacted media experts to comment on the orientalist attitudes. Most said they were not surprised at all.

“One unfortunate aspect of the media coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is that some of the western media commentary has focused on the fact that this murderous aggression and terrible destruction are somehow more newsy or horrific because this attack is happening in Europe, as opposed to a third world country,” said Bob Rowley, former national editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Rowley who has covered several conflicts as a foreign correspondent described the coverage as unfortunate. “Part of the problem is that so many of the reporters and correspondents covering this war are themselves from the dominant, mostly white, mostly Christian, European – or American — culture that they are covering,” explained the veteran journalist.

“It’s fair to say that the empathic words expressed for a “civilized” society under attack could well be seen as a slight to poorer countries in the Global South when contrasted to the coverage of wars in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, or Somalia,” added Rowley.

The good news, the former Chicago Tribune journalist said is that American and European reporters who made some of these cultural missteps have apologized when the cultural bias has been pointed out to them. When asked about the importance of culturally appropriate language, Rowley said: “I think they should be much more careful.”

“Correspondents who have made some of these mistakes are now attuned to the fact of how their words are perceived by others. This underscores the importance of having a diverse press corps so that reporters from mostly euro-centric backgrounds can see the views or reporters covering this war who are from Asia, Africa, and the Middle east, for example,” he added.

Many years ago, Rowley said, he too, may have fallen prey to the same cultural bias while covering the conflicts in the former Yugoslavia. However, he believes it is wrong to normalize a conflict happening in Asia, Africa, or the Mideast and be overly shocked about the one happening in a more developed part of the world. “That is racist and should be called out as such,” said Rowley.

Asked if limits of empathy in a conflict are still being measured by race, Rowley said: “Perhaps they are, and that must evolve and stop.” While covering Africans, Rowley said, he would focus on empathy as much as he did when covering Arabs. “I am sure I made cultural mistakes and unintended slights to some along the way, but again, people learn about diversity when they are surrounded by it.”

Charlie and other media practitioners, he said, will learn a lesson about empathy and choosing their words more carefully from this controversy. “Let’s give Charlie D-Agata credit for walking into a warzone to bring that story home to people of all kinds around the world,” he concluded.

Commenting on the issue, Dr Melissa Beattie, Assistant Professor of English and Communication, American University of Armenia said: “I'm sadly unsurprised by the naked bias. I do want to stress that I think much of it is unconscious and based around the various discourses associating 'civilization' with Europe, European lineage, and whiteness.”

The limits of empathy, the media expert said, are often limited by race or other aspects of identity even outside wartime for many. “Institutionalized and structural racism seem to be a feature of Western cultures,” said Dr Beattie.

According to Dr Beattie, who has also taught media at a prominent university in Pakistan, everyone should be careful of terminology used and the sociocultural discourses that they are consciously or unconsciously expressing.

“I'm particularly disappointed in journalists when they say things like the above as most journalism or related degrees have courses or course content specifically about semiotics, representation, and discourse, so they should know better.”

“CBS is ostensibly a non-partisan news outlet. The Telegraph is centre-right, AJE is ostensibly giving a Middle Eastern viewpoint to the Anglophone audience. What all this seems to indicate is that the problem transcends any political bias that a news outlet might have — which, as such, implies that it is a sociocultural bias,” explained Dr Beattie.

Christiane Amanpour, the academic pointed, talks a lot about being 'truthful' rather than 'neutral' and that's a valid and good position to have for journalists.

“Attempting to cover 'both-sides' in something like a war crime can in some cases inadvertently ameliorate or excuse it which is not something journalists should do. That said, empathy and understanding should be extended to everyone.”

Commenting on the coverage that has shocked millions on social media, Dr Beattie said: “I think there is an unconscious assumption that war is something that Europe does not directly experience, in part because Europeans have not had a land war since the Bosnian War in the 90s which was also only in a confined geographic area. What tends to be missed is how much European colonialism and, in some cases, direct military intervention from various Western powers have caused, contributed to and/or exacerbated the various conflicts outside Europe.”

In academia, the media expert said, there has been a recent push to include that information in education. “Whether that should be at the primary, secondary and/or tertiary level is open to debate but it's still very early days with that.”

From Munich, Germany, another journalist expressed similar views about the biased commentary. The moral deformities of the West, Jessica Buchleitner said have been on display for quite some time. The author of 50 Women, a two book anthology series of personal stories of strength and perseverance told by 50 different women from 30 countries said: “The commentary by some reporters dehumanizes and projects the experience with war as normal and expected for Afghans, Arabs, and Asians but not so much for Ukrainians.

 

 

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