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  • Writer's pictureMeher Fatima

How media shapes narratives: Lessons from Ukraine and Gaza

Mainstream media's portrayal of conflicts can shape the consumption of information and the construction of narratives and opinions. Meher Fatima contrasts the media coverage of the war in Ukraine to the ongoing Israeli aggression in Gaza.

Artist Credit: Carlos Latuff

How does one change the narrative? One of the easiest ways, as shown by Palestinian journalists, is to document.

The media's role in shaping public opinion is well-documented. The pace of information exchange via media has become this fast-paced due to the vast network of corporations, organisations, reporters and correspondents. During conflicts, the role of media becomes even more significant. After 9/11, the Western media's portrayal of what and who constitutes terrorism played a key role in shaping public opinion in the West. The media’s presentation of events laid the groundwork for subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq. The CNN effect, as it came to be known, turned these invasions into a public spectacle. The role of Rwanda Radio in fanning the flames of hatred is another important example. The media’s ability to highlight certain aspects of an issue is a known fact. And it is dangerous. Especially in situations where extreme propaganda can lead to death and destruction. In routine coverage, the media's selectivity may not make much difference but in situations of war and conflict, the media plays a significant role which may lead to debilitating consequences for the involved parties.

Two Sides of a Story: A Choice or Slip?

In recent times two events on a global scale exemplified this- Ukraine and Palestine. The aim of this article is not to dwell on the hard politics. The aim is to show how the media, especially, western media’s attitude towards the two devastating occurrences, involving the loss of lives and homes, differed in tone and tenor. When Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Ukrainians became new heroes. Any Russian media channel affiliated with the Kremlin was banned across cable networks and social media platforms. Ukraine became a symbol of resilience. From hashtags condemning Russia to praise Ukraine, from the Ukrainian premier addressing award shows to special screenings in universities, Russia was unequivocally criticized. The award shows honored the ‘fallen’ citizens, magazines ran Ukraine on their covers, celebrities called for Ukraine’s independence and the Western media ran bulletins and shows in support of Ukraine. 

Just a year later another event, leaving a trail of destruction, occurred exposing the media’s bias in covering the issues like war and conflict. On October 7, 2023, Hamas, the paramilitary group ruling the Gaza Strip, launched a multi-front attack against Israel. The attacks were launched in retaliation to Israeli attacks across Gaza and West Bank. In turn, Israel launched a military offensive in Gaza against Hamas. The Israeli ‘operation’ has led to the deaths of thousands of refugees and the displacement of over two million people from Gaza. The Israeli actions have targeted hospitals, refugee camps, and UNRWA schools. The Israeli regime has also detained many Palestinian civilians in the West Bank and Gaza and lodged minors as young as ten years old in prisons. The Israeli brutality and magnitude of fatalities in Palestine have led to protests, demonstrations, blockades and sit-ins across the world. The Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) Movement has called for bans on companies and business groups supporting Israel. There is also danger of this turning into a regional war. However, compared to Ukraine, the mainstream media, especially in the West, has adopted a different approach in covering this ‘war’. One cannot ignore the racial undertones of their coverage. For instance, during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, one reporter quipped how it pained him to see 'blue-eyed, blonde-haired, good’ people lose their lives. In the case of Palestine, the mainstream media continues to focus on the October 7 attacks and remain dismissive of Palestinians' sufferings under the Israeli occupation. The language used in referring to the issue remained selective. For example, certain major news corporations ran headlines like Israelis ‘killed' while Palestinians 'died' in this war. The differentiating language was not only limited to deaths, it also happened with the survivors. Many of the Palestinian accounts of survival and abuse remained invisible from the media's eyes. Allegations of rape against Hamas were readily, and without verification, accepted by the mainstream media while the same against Israeli forces have not been given coverage.

The Bias in Language: Deliberate or Unintended?

What explains this bias? First of all, is there a bias? One can argue it is a 'top-down' issue; that the media is not independent. It is partly true. However, the bias extends beyond what media covers, it is also about what it covers. The mainstream media’s language is heavily dosed with stereotypes and racial undertones. Why would media houses term Israelis as 'killed' and Palestinians as 'died'? It is not just about independence or perspective, it is about the message. It is about image-making. The media wants to convey certain things about certain groups deliberately. Why is Ukraine’s retaliation is ‘right’ and Palestine’s is not? Why is it Russian 'aggression' and Israeli 'operations'?  Some of these questions require answers that are beyond the scope of this article. But certain questions can be answered. Especially the question of language.

The Mainstream Media and the Problem of Language

Edward Said describes Orientalism as the stereotypification of non-Western races and people from a Western lens. It is a colonial construct. The Orient- mystical, exotic, backward- is the foil to the scientifically advanced, civilized and sophisticated Occident. The Orientalist stereotypes are found in Western terminology in abundance. The same is true for the media. It becomes more obvious in times of war. Why are these images created? There is a political interest in perpetuating certain images of certain groups. It is part of the legacy of colonialism. Another way to look at these ‘deliberate’ images is Islamophobia. After 9/11 the Western media went into a frenzy regarding Islam. Though as a practice Islamophobia had already crept into Western vocabulary. The 9/11 provided amplification to the practice. There are various stereotypes regarding different groups in the mainstream media but they are most vicious for Islam. Most of the stereotypes and images floating in the media regarding Palestinians are the direct result of entrenched Islamophobia. The depiction evoked such a strong reaction only because just a year back Ukrainians, caught in more or less the same situation, were portrayed in more sympathetic terms. It is noteworthy how these images then become part of common sense. It creates problems for people belonging to these 'stereotyped' cultures in the West. Since the inception of the latest phase of conflict, there has been a rise in hate crimes and Islamophobic attacks in the West. It has not been talked about that more children have been killed in Palestine than in any other conflict in the last many decades. More than a hundred journalists have lost their lives, the highest in recent decades. Israel has bombed refugee camps, used illegal White Phosphorous bombs, targeted residential buildings and raided many colonies in the West Bank without much hue and cry from the mainstream media. If one substitutes Israel with Russia, all these facts would have received much more attention. It is not to say that Russia is not an aggressor but Israel is no less. For both, terminology should have been more or less the same.

The Orient- mystical, exotic, backward- is the foil to the scientifically advanced, civilized and sophisticated Occident. The Orientalist stereotypes are found in Western terminology in abundance. The same is true for the media.

The media ethics are deeply compromised in the non-Western world as well. But there is a striking difference in coverage. While the Western Media perpetuates cultural and racial stereotypes, non-Western media usually portrays political stereotypes against the Westerners. Despite friction, the non-Western media has not yet turned the Westerners into a 'racialized' threat. It is the Western media that has perpetuated racialized images of the threats most.

A Tide of Change: Social Media, Narrative Building and Challenges

Despite the lukewarm, and often biased, coverage of the Palestinian side, social media has played a key role in the narrative shift. The local journalists and other content creators made extensive use of social media platforms to document the ground situation in Palestine. It brought a fundamental shift in public perception. The glaring difference between the mainstream media’s portrayal and social media clips from the ground became a thought-provoking notion. But social media reportage has its issues. For instance, social media giant, Meta, has been accused of censorship and false flagging of content related to Palestine. It is not about the platform, it is about the narrative. 

How does one change the narrative? One of the easiest ways, as shown by Palestinian journalists, is to document. Social media, at least, liberalizes content documentation. Keeping a written record of different narratives is another way. One of the most effective ways of changing the narratives is to gather firsthand information from the survivors and the refugees. Narratives can be changed if they are challenged. For that to happen, one needs to have critical and cognitive skills. The mainstream media’s biases cannot be challenged without developing structural resilience and constant questioning. The critical inquiry into the established narratives is the only way forward.


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