Media Bias Frames Western Reporting on Ukraine

In a 1991 article published in the Journal of Communications, Robert Entman of the George Washington University examined how the American media framed international news.  He compared coverage of two similar events: the shooting down of Korean Airlines Flight 007 by the Soviet military in 1983, and the shooting down of Iran Air Flight 655 by the U.S. military in 1988. Entman demonstrated how the choice of language and images in reporting on these events framed the former as a deliberate act of murder and the latter as an unfortunate tragedy. While claiming to report objectively, the media in fact demonstrated deep subconscious bias.

This bias has not disappeared since Entman wrote his article. Media coverage of recent events in Ukraine abundantly demonstrates that point.

Take, for instance, the incident which occurred on June 2, 2014 in the city of Lugansk. On that day, the Ukrainian air force dispatched ground attack aircraft to help defend a border guard post. Instead of bombing the insurgents who were attacking the post, one of these planes fired into the civilian administration building in the centre of the city. Eight people are believed to have been killed, most of them women, and all of them civilians.

Such reporting causes the public to view international events through a distorted lens, which contributes to the production of foreign policy based on ignorance.

The Ukrainian government denied all responsibility, preposterously claiming that the deaths were caused by an anti-aircraft missile fired by the rebels which had mysteriously done a 180-degree turn and homed in on an air-conditioning unit in the administration building. This is demonstrably untrue. One of the noteworthy features of the current conflict in Ukraine is that nearly every significant event is filmed by one or more bystanders, and the video is then uploaded onto the internet. In this instance, we have film of the fighter plane firing and of rockets striking the ground and the building. Subsequently, shards of S-8KOM anti-personnel rockets were identified on the scene. To maintain that this was anything other than an airstrike is absurd. As photographs show, the results were deadly [warning: graphic content].

So how did the Western media report this story? One of the first to pick it up was the BBC, which stated on its website: “In Lugansk, there was an explosion in the main regional building seized by the separatists several weeks ago. It was not immediately known what caused the blast. Unconfirmed reports say that there were casualties.” The BBC later added that “Pro-Russian groups accused Ukraine’s military of carrying out an air strike. Kiev denied the claim, suggesting that separatists in the building could have mishandled a portable anti-aircraft missile system.” No doubt the BBC considered that by reporting both claims it was being even-handed, but even a minimal amount of fact-checking would have allowed it to determine which claim was objectively correct.

The Guardian newspaper did not even attempt to present two sides to the story. It repeated the government claim that rebels had killed the civilians with an anti-aircraft missile and omitted any information about aircraft.

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North American media were barely interested in the story. On the CNN website, it was buried deep in an article in the World section, which said merely that “seven people were killed Monday by an explosion at the regional government building in Lugansk.” The CBC did not mention it all. Nor did the Canadian print media: neither the Globe and Mail nor the Ottawa Citizen covered the story in their June 3 editions.

This was not an unusual approach to news coming out of Ukraine. On May 9, Ukrainian soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians in Mariupol, killing several of them. Again, this was captured on film and the footage leaves no doubt about what transpired: lethal force was used against peaceful protestors who posed no threat to the soldiers concerned. (See this, this and this.)

How did the Canadian media report on the episode? Mostly, they didn’t bother. In the Ottawa Citizen, for instance, the only mention was a short and inaccurate statement in the middle of a report by Matthew Fisher, saying that, “ethnic Russian secessionists grabbed global attention by engaging in a savage street battle with Ukrainian forces just down the road in Mariupol.” No further information was provided.

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Just as Entman noted in his article, the media’s choice of language also frames the story in a way which reflects reporters’ biases. Thus in Lugansk, their description was not that an aircraft attacked a building (an active voice, suggesting agency, and thus guilt), but rather that “there was an explosion” (nobody in particular did anything; it just happened). Similarly, when pro-government activists killed about 40 anti-government protesters in Odessa by throwing Molotov cocktails into the Trade Union building, Western media reported merely that “fire broke out” and that “at least 31 people have been killed in a fire”. Once again, nobody did anything; the fire just happened.

Close observation of recent Western reporting on Ukraine reveals a clear pattern: when the Ukrainian government or its supporters kill civilians, this is consistently downplayed or ignored. When incidents are reported at all, the media’s framing obscures agency and thus responsibility for what has happened. Such reporting causes the public to view international events through a distorted lens, which contributes to the production of foreign policy based on ignorance.

At the end of his 1991 article, Entman concluded that he had insufficient evidence to say how widespread the phenomenon he described was. Media coverage not only of Ukraine but also of other important stories in recent years (such as the Iraq war) suggests that it is very widespread indeed.

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