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Media Coverage of Humanitarian Crises Perpetuate Racist Narratives

Journalism about Ukraine shines a light on Western media’s complicity in imperialism

The coverage of the Russian invasion of Ukraine by large Western publications has led many to criticize the ways in which the media speaks about refugees. The current crisis, which began with Russian troops invading Donbass on Feb 24, has led to more than 2.5 million refugees fleeing Ukraine. The invasion has been covered by every large media outlet, with the reporting highlighting the immense differences between coverage of Ukrainian refugees and refugees in the MENA region and South Asia. By portraying Ukrainian refugees more compassionately than racialized refugees, Western media has demonstrated that its primary concern is sharing the stories of white people. 

CBS’ senior foreign correspondent Charlie D’Agata commented that unlike “Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades[…] [Kyiv] is a relatively civilized, relatively European city where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” This framing perpetuates the white supremacist sentiment that suffering and displacement are not acceptable in Europe but supposedly unavoidable for those in the Middle East. D’Agata’s statement was not an isolated incident, instead one instance of many revealing the deep-seated racial bias in Western media. This sentiment is seen in the appeals of political pundits too; Santiago Abascal, the leader of Spain’s far-right Vox party which has recently secured a coalitional place in regional government and become the third most popular party in Spain’s national parliament, took advantage of the situation to further xenophobic sentiments by stating in parliament that “anyone can tell the difference between them [Ukrainian refugees] and the invasion of young military-aged men of Muslim origin who have launched themselves against European borders in an attempt to destabilize and colonize it.” This absurdly marks Muslim refugees as colonizers and aggressors, and Ukrainian refugees as conversely more deserving of aid. The similarities between Abascal’s statements and media coverage of refugees globally send a clear message from Western politicians and media: refugees of colour are less welcome in our countries.

These remarks repeatedly use the term “European” to draw the attention of Westerners to the invasion by appealing to a greater care for white refugees over refugees of colour. They speak to a long legacy of Western media’s dehumanization of civilians and refugees in the MENA region and South Asia – which deems the killings, displacement, and deaths of these individuals as “tolerable.” This legacy has consisted of manufacturing consent that enables Western countries to continue their imperialist projects without the media holding them accountable. The existence of regions in which the West considers war tolerable or even inevitable is inseparable from the existence of regions in which war is considered an affront to “civilized […] European” people. The spread of these ideas, helped along by media coverage, has been key in enabling imperialist policies that stratify the current state of affairs. 

Providing media coverage of the war in Ukraine is essential, and it is imperative that journalists accurately represent oppressive power dynamics while doing so. Racism and imperialism are systems currently enacted on the geopolitical scale, and it is crucial that journalists are aware of this and accurately reflect this in their coverage. Journalism which does not acknowledge and criticize these systems is complicit in perpetuating a narrative which justifies imperialism. Media coverage that upholds the narratives of white supremacy must be condemned. Standing in solidarity with the people of Ukraine must be part of a larger effort to resist and reject imperialist agendas that have, in recent years, produced humanitarian crises in places such as Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Gaza Strip.

Racist media coverage and political statements extend beyond newspapers. Journalists are talking about the real lives of real people – the racist coverage of the war directly affects the lived realities of marginalized and racialized refugees trying to flee Ukraine. 

The growing crisis in Ukraine has presented marginalized refugees with particular challenges; the media’s emphasis on white Ukrainians neglects this fact. Black refugees have reported being denied entry at border crossings for being Black while watching white refugees at the same borders receive better treatment. LGBTQ+ Ukrainians fear increased oppression in Russia, and those who may have to flee to the neighbouring nation of Poland are far from guaranteed safe reception, with anti-LGBTQ+ sentiments running rampant. Support these marginalized communities in Ukraine by sharing resources and donating to funds specifically by and for those in need. Donate to this gofundme organized by Black Women For Black Lives and share information curated by @blackpeopleinukraine. Support people with disabilities in Ukraine by donating to disability rights organization FightForRight. For more information, read this google doc created by women’s rights activist Nino Ugrekhelidze that lists youth-led, LGBTQ+ and feminist grassroots organizations in Ukraine you can support. Follow these anti-war organizations: Stop the War Coalition, Peace Action, and World Beyond war for anti-war education.

A previous version of this article included a quote from NBC’s Kelly Cobiella comparing Ukrainian to Syrian refugees and characterizing the largely Christian and white Ukrainian refugees as more deserving of aid, implying the beliefs to be Cobiella’s own. In fact, Cobiella’s comments were made in response to a question from Hallie Jackson asking her to explain the discrepancy between Poland’s response to welcoming Syrian refugees and Ukrainian refugees, and were taken out of context.

The Daily regrets the error.

This article was last updated on March 22, 2022 with more context pertaining to Santiago Abascal’s position of power and influence as the leader of the far-right Vox party.