by Natalie Tavadze
2016 marks the fifth year of the Syrian Civil War, the second year of the conflict in the Ukraine, the second year of the Iraqi Civil War, a year of war in Afghanistan, following the 2001-2014 phase, a year of Yemeni Civil War, the seventh year of the Boko Haram insurgency, the seventh year of Uyghur conflict in China, the third year of civil war in South Sudan, the fourth year of civil war in the Central African Republic and about fifty-two years of unsettled Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, ongoing intra- and interstate conflicts – ranging from wars, limited wars and violent confrontations to non-violent conflicts and unresolved disputes – span almost every corner of the globe.
©Heidelberg Institut fuer Internationale Konfliktforschung
According to the Heidelberg Institute for International Conflict Research’s (HIIK) recently-released Conflict Barometer 2015, 409 conflicts were monitored around the globe last year, of which 223 were characterized as violent, 24 as limited wars and 19 as wars. While many of these conflicts make headlines in the international media outlets, the remainder go largely unnoticed. Very few have heard about the Fergana Valley conflict in Central Asia, tensions in Honduras and Nicaragua or violence in North Caucasus – simply to name a few. To gain a deeper understanding of the reportorial bias surrounding the media coverage of global conflicts, Polemics interviewed HIIK researcher Elza Martinez and freelance journalist Marcel Burkhardt, both with firsthand experience in the field.
It is said that no news is good news, and that bed news travels faster. This proves true in only select cases, however, when it comes to conflicts. The intensity of the conflict often determines the intensity of its coverage. As Martinez affirmed, “More often than not, conflicts only appear on our collective radar when they’ve turned violent. The HIIK sees it as essential to track tensions and dynamics between actors before they flare up. Paying attention to non-violent conflicts is important to understand the subtle background of the society beyond violence.”
The media, not only a messenger of information, plays a crucial role in the world of research as researchers regularly rely on news reportage when compiling reports, which often proves a challenge. According to Martinez, although the regional media tends to provide more up-to-date information and the degree of selectivity is lower, it can also be biased and polemic, especially if supporting one particular side in a conflict. On the other hand, international news outlets often lack a depth of understanding of conflict dynamics, hindering their authenticity.
Covering conflicts poses a hardship for journalists themselves. They often face technical difficulties such as inaccessibility of information, pressure from governments and censorship. Burkhardt, who writes regularly for the Zweites Deutsches Fernsehen in Germany, has recently covered the war in Syria and the refugee crisis. “Since the beginning of the conflict in Syria I [have been] in touch with many civilians,” he explained. “Privately I started the communication via Social Networks … because I wanted to learn more about their life and goals.”
When covering other topics, for example, “the difficult situation of young people in Southern Europe,” Burkhardt travelled there in person. In case of Syria, however, that was not possible. “For the online news I can talk to my informants in Syria via Skype or social media … For TV-coverage … circumstances are even more difficult, because you need pictures! Good pictures.” In cases such as these, a journalist has two possibilities: “So-called ‘stringers’ you can trust … who [deliver] pictures. Or you ask your informants if they can deliver their impressions on a video.”
It takes an articulate and unbiased individual to provide pertinent and useful information. Often one forgets, however, that “journalists are human and therefore members of their societies,” clarified Burkhardt. According to him, there is some kind of natural “influence” or “bias” in every society. “But I don’t think that we journalists are especially biased by our administration in respect of what we should focus on and where we should be quiet.”
Regardless, he agrees with Martinez’s statement that the magnitude of a conflict does influence the degree of media coverage: “I think it is always a question of how much you are being affected by a conflict. How important is it for ‘your’ audience, ‘your’ society? And that does not only determine the work of the ‘Western Media.’ There are more than 400 conflicts (including wars) in the world right now, not every [one] of them will be covered every day. But I do also see poor or ‘under-complex’ media coverage about several main conflicts.”
Martinez is also aware of this “natural bias” and finds it understandable that not all conflicts and disputes will be narrated daily by the international media: “When last November there was a bombing in Lebanon, it did make [the] headlines of every media outlet, however, there is violence on a daily basis in this country, which is not being reported and we should not expect that it will be transferred in international news, it is just not realistic.”
The proximity of a conflict to Europe can be considered one of the decisive factors when it comes to more frequent reporting. Martinez admitted that the Middle East, her own area of expertise, receives a fair amount of media coverage. Although some argue that this does indeed have to do with proximity to Europe, according to her, it is also a question of density: “The Middle East and Maghreb had the highest conflict density in 2013, as its states had average values of 3.9 conflicts and of 0.7 highly violent conflicts.”
Nevertheless, the importance of receiving information about not only escalated but also non-violent conflicts, untinged by individual judgment, proves essential in many regards. First, it facilitates the work of researchers, who must often resort to open sources like the media. “We never trust a single source, especially not regional, partisan ones… [We] review all of them, in several languages, and combine the information with reports by research institutions and NGOs. For us it is important to receive plausible information. In this regard, it is very interesting to see the difference between international news outlets… and more regional ones, as they often report in different styles and contain different degrees of information,” stated Martinez.
Second, conflicts should be analyzed within the context of regional developments. As Martinez explained, “Quite often, when the public receives news about ongoing conflicts, they feel unsolvable. But take Lebanon, where we had fifteen years of civil war, including many actors with no clear alliances as in Syria. [In that] context the five years of Syrian war seems neither shocking nor doomed. The comparison is quite eye-opening.”
The numbers provided by the HIIK research institute speak volumes; the world is still far from peaceful. Often our failings as an international society are blamed on inefficiencies and ignorance, especially when it comes to those oppressed by conflict around the globe. To what extent the media is at fault, however, remains unclear. Moreover, as untroubled as Europe may seem in comparison to other regions, it remains plagued by discord, with almost sixty conflicts observed in 2015 in addition to the ongoing refugee crisis.