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The challenges of conflict reporting – when injuries from explosive weapons don’t make the news

There are some predictable truths of war. The most common is that old saying – the first casualty of war is the truth.

Another is that, as conflict deepens and worsens, reporting becomes less accurate and less specific.  The fog of war mists up the media’s lens. Only the biggest, most shocking numbers make the headlines and, along the way, the recording of the injured in war drops away.

At Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) we run a civilian casualty monitor. In it, we record the deaths and injuries from incidents of explosive violence around the world, as reported in English-language media. Every day, AOAV scours news outlets looking for reports on the mounting deaths and injuries as seen in places such Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria and all the other countries and territories that regularly experience the devastating impact of explosive weapons around the world.

Such monitoring allows us to examine patterns and trends in the hope of reducing harm through advocacy. In addition, we believe there is also a moral duty for the dead and injured to be recorded.

Between 2011 and 2018, AOAV recorded some 22,153 explosive violence incidents globally.  These killed and injured some 309,044 people, of which 231,909 – or three quarters – were civilians. Of those civilians, 82,473 were reported killed and 149,472 were reported injured.

In other words, for each person killed, two people were reported injured.

Explosive weapons, though, with their wide area impact and devastating force probably harm far more people than go reported.

In May 2018, the BBC reported – for instance – that the Manchester suicide bomber in the UK not only killed 22 people in his 2017 attack, but also injured ‘over 800’. In the Manchester Arena, for each person killed, 36 people were injured either physically or mentally, or both. Such widespread and granular levels of casualty recording, however, are very much the exception than the norm.

All too often the injured go unrecorded. In 2017, for instance, AOAV recorded more civilian deaths than injuries from explosive weapons. It is highly unlikely that less injuries than deaths occurred globally, rather there is a deep concern that injuries from explosive violence globally are dramatically and consistently underreported.

In 2017, of all global incidents in which civilian casualties were recorded (2,856), civilian injuries went unrecorded in 54% of cases. In 2011, that figure was just 18%. And while, in 2018, the percentage fell to 46%, one thing is clear: globally the injured from explosive violence are not making the news.

Many factors are at play here. Levels of access for journalists; the wider context of violence; the length and intensity of the conflict; the types of perpetrators; the types of victims. All of these things dictate the detail in any given media report into an explosive incident to one degree or other, and the amount of media coverage such an incident gets.

Example: injuries go unrecorded in Syria
Since 2011, Syria has experienced the highest levels of civilian harm from explosive violence globally, with at least 5,134 incidents reported in English language media, leading to the death of 33,135 civilians, and the injury of 34,128.

Such figures, however, as with other Syrian casualty monitors, do not reflect the true reality of the harm that the civilians of Syria have faced.

Over the course of the conflict, AOAV has witnessed a substantial decrease in the quantity and quality of media reporting. A paucity of journalists, the targeting of the media, conflict reporting fatigue, other news priorities, and the repetition of the same terrible news means that an untold number of those killed or injured have gone unreported. In this situation, the injured are less likely to be noted than the dead. In our explosive violence monthly update for May 2019, AOAV recorded 141 incidents in Syria where no civilian injuries were reported, despite there being 276 civilian deaths.

So, whereas AOAV recorded 175 incidents in Syria that month that caused civilian casualties, over 80% of these failed to mention injuries. It is impossible all these incidents caused no civilian injuries. This lack of detail in casualty reporting is a trend in Syria which has become more noticeable.

In 2018, AOAV recorded 953 incidents of explosive violence in Syria, as reported in English language media. These resulted in the death or injury of 9,587 civilians. Of these incidents, though, over 80% (775) only reported on the deaths of civilians.

Of the 178 incidents where civilian injuries were actually recorded, some 4,101 people were reported injured, against 1,780 deaths – about 10 injuries for every 4 people killed. If this ratio was applied to all incidents in 2018, then one could estimate that something in the region of 8,500 civilian injuries have gone unreported.

If we examine data for the years in which a full 12-months’ worth of recording has occurred since the war in Syria began, we find the ratio of civilian deaths to injuries recorded fluctuates. The data suggests that as the conflict got steadily worse the injured went unreported. Deaths accounted for 46% of total civilian casualties in 2012.  By 2018 that figure had risen to 57%.

Similarly, in 2012, 77% of explosive incidents in Syria were just noted as causing deaths – no injuries were cited. By 2018, 81% of reported incidents of explosive violence in Syria just recorded deaths.

This shift could suggest the conflict was getting deadlier – a possibility given the lack of access to healthcare. Or it could be that, as a conflict progresses, the lethality of weapons used there increased. But it is far, far more likely that conflict-reporting fatigue and the challenges of reporting meant that less and less injuries were reported from Syria over time.

Simply put, as the fog of war descended on Syria, the injured became invisible.

This blunting of reporting is true of other countries experiencing high-levels of explosive violence, particularly in areas of on-going war with restricted access to journalists. A country with similar casualty figures to those seen in Syria is Yemen. There, similarly, injuries have often gone unreported, an absence that has worsened as the conflict has continued.

In the first year of the conflict – 2015 – civilian deaths accounted for 37% of total civilian casualties reported in Yemen. By 2017, this stood at 60%.

Comparative countries
The notion that the more violent a conflict gets, the less the injured are reported upon, is bolstered by the fact that in areas that see lower levels of explosive violence (though still among the worst ten countries globally) higher ratios of the reported injured are witnessed.  These countries are noted for explosive violence that is sporadic and that offers better journalistic access.

It also points to another truism. That when civilian casualties do not occur on a daily basis and at high levels, injuries are more likely to make the news.

In India, for example, 322 civilian casualties were recorded in 2018, with civilian injuries accounted for 80% of all reported casualties. Indeed, at no point since 2011 has the level of civilian deaths in India been higher than 20% of the total civilian casualties. So, whilst India continues to witness explosive violence, it is not so persistent as to make civilian injuries there un-newsworthy.

To investigate this further, AOAV examined ten developing countries with between seven and ten incidents of explosive violence between 2011 and 2018. In total, these countries witnessed 85 incidents.  These killed 203 people, with 1,107 more reported injured. In these ten developing nations, then, civilian deaths accounted for 15% of total civilian casualties from explosive incidents.

CountryIncidentsCivilians killedCivilians injuredTotal Civilian casualtiesCivilian deaths as % of civilian casualties
Bosnia and Herzegovina10755620.11
South Africa9648540.11
Côte d’Ivoire743841270.34

When AOAV conducted the same analysis for the ten countries which were worst impacted by explosive violence (all developing states, too), it was found that civilian deaths accounted for 38% of the total civilian casualties.

Then, when AOAV examined explosive violence in developed EU countries far more people were reported injured. AOAV looked at 72 explosive incidents in 17 countries in the EU since 2011. These caused, in total, 1,010 casualties, of which 968 (96%) were civilians. Of those civilians, 177 (18%) were killed and 791 (82%) were injured. Over four times as many injuries were recorded as deaths.

It is worth noting that of those 58 EU incidents that caused civilian casualties, only 14 (24%) did not record any civilian injuries despite recording civilian deaths. A further 34 (58%) recorded just civilian injuries.

Explosive incidents that only cause injuries are rarely newsworthy in areas of high-conflict.

Why is there such a discrepancy? Physical difficulties such as access for journalists and language barriers may be an issue.

Journalistic access and its impact
Much of the above analysis suggests that, where access for journalists is more difficult, there is less reporting of injuries and less granularity in reporting in general. To examine this further, AOAV looked specifically at hard-to-reach regions of Pakistan.

In Waziristan, for example, where access for English-speaking journalists and western news outlets is difficult, AOAV recorded higher levels of deaths, compared to injuries, reported among civilian casualties. Between 2011 and 2018, AOAV found 322 incidents of explosive violence reported in this mountainous region.  hese resulted in 322 civilian deaths and 326 civilian injuries. This means that civilian deaths accounted for just under 50% of all civilian casualties. there

As a whole, the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) – until it was merged with Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in 2018 – saw this percentage of deaths stand at 33% of all reported harm – more than any other region of Pakistan.

In contrast, areas with greater journalistic access, such as Karachi and Islamabad, saw a far greater percentage of injuries reported. In Karachi, for example, civilian deaths (276) accounted for 15% of total civilian casualties (1,855). In Islamabad, civilian deaths stood at 18% of all reported civilian harm.

Language and its impact
Language also causes difficulties in fully monitoring injuries caused.

AOAV compared reporting of injuries from Francophone and Anglophone countries in Africa. We excluded countries that had both French and English as official languages. We only included countries that had seen no more than 10 incidents (this excluded Burkina Faso, Burundi, CAR, DRC, Kenya, Mali, Nigeria, South Sudan and Sudan.)

In those Francophone countries that remained, AOAV recorded 31 incidents, resulting in 210 civilian deaths and 676 injuries. This meant that deaths accounted for 24% of the total civilian casualties.

In Anglophone countries that remained, AOAV recorded 37 incidents, resulting in 52 civilian deaths and 601 injuries. This meant that deaths accounted for 8% of the total civilian casualties.

It is likely, then, that in countries where English is not one of the main languages, injuries are not as well covered in English-language news reporting.

Weapon type and perpetrator
Other patterns emerge. AOAV also found that civilian injuries are more likely to be recorded when the perpetrator was a non-state actor, and when the weapon was an improvised explosive device (IED).

Civilian injuries from explosive violence has, since 2011, accounted for 64% of total civilian casualties. But when a state was behind the violence, injuries reported accounted for less than half (47%) of total civilian casualties. When a non-state perpetrator, though, is behind the explosive violence, injuries are far more likely to be recorded, accounting for 71% of the total civilian casualties. This deviation might owing, in part, to the types of weapons state versus non-state actors might use. Or it might be that non-state actors often target civilian areas that are easier for journalists to reach, and that such harm garners more comprehensive coverage owing the explicitness of the atrocity.

Similar discrepancies are seen when the death to injury ratio is examined in relation to weapon launch method. When IED incidents are recorded, civilian injuries account for more than 7 in 10 (or 72%) of civilian casualties. With airstrikes, civilian injuries drop to just 4 in 10 (of 43%) of civilian casualties recorded.  Of course, the lethality of a certain weapon may come into play in this case.  Since 2011, in incidents where civilians were killed in airstrikes, each strike claimed 9 lives.  In IED incidents involving civilian deaths, each incident claimed, on average, 7 lives.

The fact, though, that IEDs are often used in city centres and are designed, especially suicide bombers, to maximise the ‘propaganda of the deed’ means that this particular type of explosive weapon often garners more media coverage (and often opprobrium) by English language media – a language that, it must be noted, is that of both US and UK air forces. Potential nationalistic bias in reporting, then, cannot be ignored – where the harm from air strikes is given less coverage than the harm from the Salafist jihadist ‘enemy’ of these Anglophile nations.

It is worth noting the impact of children being reported among casualties. When children are reported among the casualties, this actually increases the percentage of death recorded compared to injured. Over the last eight years, in incidents where children have not been reported among casualties, civilian deaths account for 32% of total civilian casualties. While when it is noted that children are among the casualties, civilian deaths account for 42%. This increases further when a figure is given for how many children are among the casualties; in these incidents, civilian deaths account for 44% of total civilian casualties.

There are a few explanations as to why this might be the case. Children are less likely to survive blast injuries, so if children are impacted, the fatality rate increases. Additionally, it has been observed that child casualties are more likely to be mentioned in high casualty incidents, when the injured are less likely to be recorded – such as a house being hit by an air strike. The average number of total casualties in incidents where child casualties are not mentioned is 13. In incidents where a number of child casualties are mentioned, the average number of casualties is 18.

Other casualty monitors
A lack of injury reporting are observed in other casualty monitors.

For example, according to the Chicago Suicide Attack Database, in Lebanon in the 1980s there were 40 suicide attacks, resulting in 191 people injured and 984 killed. It is highly improbable that these reports captured all the injuries from these attacks, given the number of fatalities. The database helps shed light on the geographical bias too. For example, the database showed that, since 1994, Israel had seen 114 suicide attacks, resulting in 721 deaths and 5,098 injuries.

It is likely that injuries from suicide attacks in Israel were more newsworthy than those injured in suicide attacks in Lebanon, especially given that the vast majority of suicide attacks in Israel were against civilians, whereas most suicide attacks in Lebanon were against military targets (and so there was likely a lack of media access to final military casualty figures).

There are many factors that impact the chances of injuries being recorded alongside deaths following an explosive weapon incident.  These range from the type of weapon used, the geographical location, the intensity of a conflict, the capacity of English-language journalists to operate in the area, the perpetrator of the attack (and reporting bias), the type of victims and the dominance of other news on any given day.

The reporting, however, of injuries as well deaths from explosive violence is essential, though. To better record, monitor and respond to the harm that explosive violence brings should be a priority for all states involved in conflict.

Whilst AOAV recognises the difficulties of reporting from conflict zones, the reporting of injuries should not depend on ‘newsworthiness’ but on a moral necessity to report accurately the impact of an incident on all those directly impacted.

What is clear is that explosive violence devastates lives and rips apart families – a harm that extends far beyond those who are killed. Those injured will often have to live with life-changing trauma, a hard truth that should not be overlooked in conflict reporting.