Limited coverage of civilian deaths means Americans can’t comprehend the true cost of war

Need to know.
Need to know.
Image: REUTERS/Eloisa Lopez
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News coverage of civilian casualties in faraway conflict zones has been almost nonexistent during key periods in the war against the global terrorist network known as ISIS. That’s according to a new report by investigative journalist Alexa O’Brien for Airwars, a London-based nonprofit that tracks and documents injuries and deaths of non-combatants worldwide.

ISIS rose to prominence out of the mire of the wars in Syria and Iraq. At its height four years ago, the ISIS caliphate stretched across vast territory and several major cities in Iraq and Syria. By some estimates ISIS leaders governed some 12 million people. A US-backed military campaign, waged mostly by air, fought back. Earlier this year, the last town held by ISIS finally fell.

The major American media, however, struggled to cover the war and its repercussions. And the most striking hole in the coverage was the impact it had on civilians. Some 30,000 civilians lost their lives in the conflict, according to an estimate cited in the Airwars report.

“Did US readers, listeners, and viewers obtain a proper sense of the costs of modern war?” O’Brien asks in the report.

“There is no doubt that some exceptional reporting on the subject took place,” O’Brien writes. “Yet, prior to this report, there was also anecdotal evidence that suggested that civilian harm from US-led actions in Iraq and Syria had only been covered patchily by major US media.”

The problem

It is no secret that many newsrooms are shrinking in the face of diminishing ad revenue. In the last few years, the Airwars report points out, those smaller newsrooms have had been met with a “ferocious news cycle dominated by domestic politics.” That makes it difficult for them to pay attention to an issue as seemingly far away as Syria.

Fewer reporters also means that verifying claims of civilian harm is harder than ever. There are not as many journalists on the ground to do the reporting, and many news organizations can no longer afford the budget for security and logistics that is required for that kind of work.

When veteran reporters with expertise in military operations, strategy, and policy are let go, they aren’t always replaced. More than 50% of the journalists interviewed by O’Brien said they did not feel “sufficiently prepared” to report on civilian deaths in conflict zones. This means that the coverage of war and civilian harm gets “caught up in prevailing mindsets and body counts,” which are not always accurate.

Despite the reduced coverage, journalists themselves told O’Brien that reporting on civilian harm in conflict zones is “critical,” and that “the US media has a responsibility to investigate all major harm events.”

“Yet, examining actual reporting on civilian harm in the war against ISIS indicates that without a mandate from managing editors, US newsrooms often failed to meet their own expectations and standards,” the report says. “In the first two years of the war, for example, there was almost no coverage by major newsrooms of civilian harm resulting from US actions in Iraq and Syria.”

Reporting accurately and consistently on civilian deaths is crucial for a variety of reasons. It’s important to the victims and their families. It’s also important to check the power of the American military, which often claims its weapons are more accurate than they actually are. In a poll cited in the report, 64% of Americans said the US should not use airstrikes if it means killing civilians.

Too many civilian deaths can also embolden terrorist groups, which use the deaths as fodder for propaganda and recruitment purposes. A public understanding of the civilian death toll can actually alter the course of a war. Just look at Vietnam.

What can be done

There are solutions to begin filling the information void, O’Brien said.

She writes that better training for staff (and freelancers) about things like weapons platforms, munition damage assessments, and intelligence cycles would be a good start. Other “critical” things on the to-do list for newsrooms would include:

  • Fluency in open source collection—including social media investigation and analysis;
  • Training on security controls when dealing with sources in hostile environments;
  • Trainings in safety protocols for reporters on the ground;
  • Trainings on the ethics of dealing with human sources in war zones.

The report also says that in today’s news environment, which values clicks over almost all else, journalists at US organizations need “clear support” from editors that they will be given the proper time and resources to cover the issue thoroughly.

The reliance on information from US government sources is also a problem, according to the report. There is a presumption, for instance, that the Pentagon’s precision weapons are as accurate as they’re billed to be, which is not always the case.

On top of an exhaustive media review, O’Brien and her team pored over “every single” Department of Defense press conference and briefing available on the subject. They combed through years of transcripts to find every reference to civilian harm or civilian casualties.

The researchers were interested not only in how often the topic of civilian harm came up, but who raised the issue first, O’Brien told Quartz. They found that Pentagon officials were first to bring up the subject in about 75% of press conferences and briefings, after which the press followed up roughly 50% of the time.

The failure of journalists covering the Pentagon to inquire about civilian deaths can be attributed to a communications breakdown of sorts among professional communicators. O’Brien believes members of the Pentagon press corps may think their colleagues out in the field are covering the issue.

“As a result, coverage of civilian harm amounts to reporting on isolated incidents, leading to absent coverage during key portions of a conflict, and not providing enough context for what civilian harm indicates about the wars in which the US is engaged,” the report says.

One of the things O’Brien said she came away with from the project is how much reporters care about the news, and the way news is covered. And their jobs—specifically in the area of vetting information sourced from conflict zones—are about to get even more challenging.

“This problem doesn’t get easier in the next conflict,” she said. “So it’s really important I think for the media to come to some kind of consensus about how to approach these conflicts. The capacity for deception, the analytical skills and the kind of clearinghouse that you need to substantiate things becomes really important in conveying the news.”