How Racial Biases Have Influenced Coverage of the Ukraine-Russia War

News headlines for weeks now have focused on what’s unfolding in Ukraine with Russia’s invasion — and rightfully so. But there have been instances of racism in how some news outlets have reported the story.

On the BBC, Ukraine’s former deputy general prosecutor David Sakvarelidze said the war has been emotional for him because he sees “European people with blue eyes and blond hair being killed — children being killed — every day with Putin’s missiles.”

Al Jazeera news anchor Peter Dobbie didn’t have the best wording when describing refugees fleeing the country.

“What’s compelling is just looking at them the way they are dressed,” he said. “These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are obviously not 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.”

On CBS News, senior correspondent Charlie D’Agata —reporting from Kyiv at the time — told viewers: “With all due respect, this not a place like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European … city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s not going to happen.”

On NBC, correspondent Kelly Cobiella made a similar comment: “These are not refugees from Syria, these are refugees from Ukraine … they’re Christian, they’re white.”

While some media outlets have come across as tone-deaf and have issued offensive statements, others have spoken out about racism in the reporting of the situation in Ukraine.

MSNBC’s Joy Reid said during her show that “the coverage of Ukraine has revealed a pretty radical disparity in how human Ukrainians look and feel to Western media compared to their browner and Blacker counterparts, with some reporters using very telling comparisons in their analyses of the war.”

She added that the world is paying more attention to the war in Ukraine because it’s happening in Europe, not elsewhere, and asked if there would be as much support and passion for a country in another part of the globe.

“We don’t need to ask ourselves if the international response would be the same if Russia unleashed their horror on a country that wasn’t white and largely Christian because Russia has already done it — in Syria,” she said.

The Bigger Issues

It’s not to say that reporters aren’t trying their best to report on the war in Ukraine. Still, despite their best efforts, there are flaws in their delivery — and the American media as a whole — that perpetuate these racially driven issues and impact how even the most well-intentioned reporting is carried out and passed on to the public. Below, we’ll discuss three problems contributing to this.

Problem 1: Newsrooms Remain Exceptionally White

While diversity, equity and inclusion have increased significantly in numerous industries over the past decade, one business that isn’t changing at the same rate is the media.

According to a study conducted in 2018 by the Pew Research Center, 77% of newsroom employees in broadcast, print and online news platforms are non-Hispanic whites.

Based on data from the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, the report also found that most newsroom employees are male, citing that “about six-in-ten newsroom employees (61%) are men, compared with 53% of all workers.”

Things are also lopsided in the United Kingdom. An estimated 94% of the British journalism industry is white and more than half of the country’s top journalists have attended private school in their youth.

Pew’s research shows that there’s more racial, ethnic and gender diversity in younger newsrooms than older newsrooms, but that doesn’t change the fact that much of the media is made up of white men.

When these white men see Ukrainian men who look like them fighting for their country and see women and children fleeing who remind them of their loved ones, it becomes harder to remain unbiased and not let unconscious racial biases seep into coverage of the war.

 Problem 2: ‘Missing White Woman Syndrome’ On a Grander Scale

In 2004, newscasters Gwen Ifill and Suzanne Malveaux spoke at a journalism conference where Malveaux pointed out that U.S. media outlets were virtually ignoring the international genocides going on at the time in Rwanda and Kosovo. Ifill turned to Malveaux and blamed the problem on “Missing White Woman Syndrome.”

“If it’s a missing white woman, you’re going to cover that, every day,” she said.

Two decades later, many say the media’s coverage of the war in Ukraine is falling into the same trap of “Missing White Woman Syndrome” on an even grander scale. But instead of a single missing white woman, the media has thousands of white female war refugees to cover. Stories of mothers thrust into war and faced with the choice of staying to fight or leaving are stories that bring in viewers and bump up ratings.

Just how much can this type of issue impact the news? In a study conducted at West Virginia University and Michigan State University, researchers found that crimes involving whites are vastly over-reported compared to crimes involving people of color because of conscious or unconscious bias in the newsroom.

In this case, researchers studied missing child data from the FBI. While white children represented 54% of missing children cases, they make up a remarkable 88% of media coverage on missing children. Similarly, while Black children make up 35% of missing children cases, they received just 7% of all media coverage on the subject.

The study showed that the public engaged most with media outlets whose coverage fit their unique worldview.

Applying this principle to today’s coverage of the war in Ukraine doesn’t defend Putin or downplay what Ukrainians are going through, but it does change the context of how one should view such coverage. Understandably, America and other parts of the world sympathize with what’s happening. Still, it’s also important to remember other wars are going on in the world and the Ukrainians aren’t the only people seeking refuge in another country or fighting to save their way of life.

Problem 3: The More We See Racially Biased Reporting, The More We Come to Accept It

Suppose we can accept that much of the recent reporting on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine remains racially biased. In that case, that reporting will only bring about more biased coverage as the war continues, a study from the University of Houston suggests.

Study author Temple Northup, a professor at UH’s Jack J. Valenti School of Communication, said that is the case because long-term exposure to the news can have a distinct and lasting impact on a person’s overall views on race.

In his study, Northup looked at how news coverage can impact an individual’s unconscious attitudes toward social groups. After polling more than 300 adults, he found that individuals who watched the most news were also the most likely to have hidden or unconscious biases against Blacks — because news reporting often depicts Blacks as criminals.

Northrup and his team of researchers conducted a similar study involving newspaper readers in Germany to test if this finding was real or just a fluke. They asked people their opinion on foreigners and found similar results: people who read the most news, especially articles about crime, were most likely to have unconscious or implicit biases against people from other countries.

Knowing how this principle works, it’s useful to look at the different ways wars can be covered. In Palestine, people fighting to protect their homeland are often portrayed as terrorists by the media. The more this is reported, the more the public will believe it to be true.

In Somalia, Ethiopia, Yemen and Syria, we see stories about nameless masses of poor refugees dressed differently and with different technology, habits and traditions from ours. And even though these individuals are fleeing a war just like those in Ukraine, we think differently about them. They’re different or in an “other” category that is somehow unrelatable and not like “us.”