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Press significantly under-reported explosive violence in Syria, AOAV study shows

Major news outlets have significantly under-reported the incidents of explosive violence during the Syrian conflict, a review by Action on Armed Violence (AOAV) has found.

Between March 2011 and May 2019, there were more than 4,800 explosive weapon attacks in Syria that caused reported casualties, as recorded by AOAV from global English-language media sources.

However, an analysis of four major news outlets’ online reporting showed that these media heavyweights captured but a small fraction of the war’s violence.

AOAV examined the online coverage of Al-Jazeera, the BBC, the Guardian and the Daily Mail in an effort to understand the trends and patterns in modern-day conflict reporting.

We found that Al-Jazeera reported under 2% of the total number of explosive violence incidents compared to the data in AOAV’s own monitor. The BBC reported on 2.3%, the Guardian covered 3.2%, and the Daily Mail some 14%. The Daily Mail’s reporting was largely comprised of re-posting wire services, however, and when these were removed, the rate of coverage fell to 3.5% of all known explosive violence incidents.

On average, the four outlets reported on just 2.6% of explosive incidents in Syria between March 2011 and May 2019 and just 8% of fatalities.

AOAV’s data showed that media interest in the war peaked in 2016 before massively dropping off the next year, despite 2017 being the deadliest year for civilians in Syria from explosive weapons.

Over the four outlets, the number of incidents reported dropped by 57% in 2017 in the previous year, despite the number of attacks increasing.

More specifically, whilst major incidents of explosive violence made the headlines, the relentless small-scale destruction of lives and neighbourhoods slipped under the radar.

Similarly, when it comes to non-fatal injuries from explosive violence, the specificity of reporting was found to be low and worsened as the conflict dragged on.

Such under-reporting is of concern. Without consistent and accurate coverage of such violence by major media outlets, the public perception of the impact of war on civilians can be dramatically different from the realities on the ground.

Since the civil war began in March 2011, Syria has consistently been one of the worst countries affected by explosive violence in the world. Between 2011 and 2019, AOAV recorded 87,524 casualties caused by explosive weaponry there. Of these, 85% (74,100) were civilians. Whilst AOAV’s explosive violence figures are derived from English media outlets all over the world, the extent to which individual publications report on the impact of explosive violence is poorly understood.

The investigation, detailed below, was undertaken to address this. It sought to answer questions such as: how detailed are major news outlet in reporting on long-term conflict violence? How many incidents of harm does a single outlet pick up on? How in-depth is their coverage? And how has such reporting changed over time?

Key findings

  • Media outlets report just a fraction (2.6%) of the total incidents that caused civilian casualties and 8% of fatalities.
  • The level of individual press coverage decreased over time and massively dropped after 2016, from covering 6.8% (2016) to 0.8% (2017) of total recorded incidents
  • The frequency of leading media company’s interest in the conflict isn’t determined by the number of civilian casualties as 2017 was the deadliest year for explosive violence in Syria
  • Incidents with lower civilian casualties were rarely covered, distorting the reality of constant explosive violence. AOAV data shows there was an average of 6.1 civilian fatalities per explosive incident in this period. The media outlet’s average was 23.
  • Media organisations reported just 5% of recorded injuries
  • Injuries were also reported on less as the conflict went on; indicating an erosion of detailed reporting.
  • Certain types of weaponry attracted more reporting than others, especially suicide bombings

Coverage of Incidents
Throughout the examined period (15 March 2011 – 29 May 2019), AOAV recorded 4,802 incidents of explosive violence which resulted in the deaths or injuries of civilians in Syria. On average the four outlets reported just 123 incidents, that’s just 2.6%.

  • Al Jazeera reported 76 (1.6%) of these incidents
  • The BBC reported 108 (2.3%) 
  • The Guardian reported 155 (3.2%)
  • The Daily Mail reported 154 (3.2%) themselves and 671 (14%) including wire reports.

Our analysis also showed that the intensity of both incidents and civilian casualties did not correspond with the number of media reports.

For instance, 2017 was the deadliest year in Syria for civilians killed by explosives. That year there were 13,056 civilian casualties from such weapons in Syria, and more than triple the number of attacks (1,594) compared to the previous year (442). Despite this, the frequency of media reports in the four publication examined peaked not in 2017, but in 2016.

That year, the Guardian ran 45 reports; in 2017, they ran only nine articles – just 0.57% of the total incidents in Syria that year. 

The other three publications all saw their reporting of incidents drop between 2016 to 2017. Al Jazeera dropped from 26 to 14 (48%), the Daily Mail from 24 to 8 (67%) and the BBC from 20 to 19 (5%). Over the four outlets, the number of incidents reported dropped by 57% in 2017 in the previous year.

Overall, in 2016, the four outlets covered 6.7% of explosive incidents that caused civilian casualties. In 2017, this coverage dropped to just 0.8% of the total recorded harm by AOAV.

Such a decline might be down to a number of factors. In long-running stories, be it wars, systemic oppression or failing infrastructure, particular moments capture the editor’s and the public’s imagination far more than others. 

Heightened media interest in 2016 could be – in part – attributed to the political situation in the UK. In December 2015, the UK parliament had voted in favour of airstrikes in Syria, after earlier opposing similar action in 2013. The first British bombs hit Syria just hours later. The political attention over military action, combined with the coverage of the migrant crisis, largely stemming from middle-eastern conflicts, meant that the violence in Syria may well have attracted more media attention in 2016.

The biggest story in the UK of 2016 was undoubtedly the Brexit vote and the ensuing political fallout. However, an analysis of each outlet shows that Brexit didn’t impact the media’s reportage of the Syrian conflict. Three of the four outlets actually reported more explosive incidents in the three months after the Brexit vote compared to the three months prior. Only Al Jazeera’s coverage decreased. Perhaps the categorisation of Brexit as a primarily domestic issue meant it didn’t interfere with the coverage of a major foreign conflict. The other factor is that a sustained campaign in the second half of 2016 resulted in Aleppo being successfully regained by the Syrian government in December, a significant development in the story of the war.

By 2017, however, the escalation of explosive casualties in Syria didn’t stimulate a concordant response in the UK media. Attention had begun to dissipate. The conflict had ceased to garner headlines. The Syrian war had become, apparently, boring.

Coverage of fatalities
In total, AOAV recorded 34,297 civilian fatalities during the selected period between March 2011 and May 2019 in Syria. Our review, however, found that the vast majority of deaths went unreported by the media outlets examined. On average, 2,749 fatalities were reported; just 8% of AOAV’s recorded total.

  • The BBC reported 2,738 civilian explosive weapons fatalities in the same period in Syria: 8% of AOAV’s total.
  • Al Jazeera reported 1,977 (5.8%)
  • Daily Mail reported 2,943 (8.6%); with wires it was 11,132 (32.5%)
  • Guardian reported 3,337 (9.7%)

The BBC, and others, tended to report on events that took the most lives. AOAV data shows an average of 6.1 civilian fatalities per explosive incident in this period. The four examined media outlets’ rates were much higher (averaging 23 fatalities per incident):

  • Al Jazeera had, on average, 26.0 civilian fatalities per explosive incidents
  • BBC averaged 25.4
  • The Guardian had 21.5
  • The Daily Mail had 19.1; with wires it was 16.6.

It is clear, too, that news organisations are much more likely to report incidents with greater fatalities. This is hardly surprising but such prioritisation raises concerns. It may present a skewed vision of how explosive violence affects civilians in war. 60% of all violent explosive incidents recorded in Syria by AOAV had five or fewer fatalities. More than a third of the civilian deaths from explosive attacks in Syria during this period occurred from incidents with 10 or fewer civilian fatalities.

Typically when the number of civilians killed in a single event fails to reach a certain threshold, it goes unrecorded in the UK media. This reporting means that low-level, repeated explosive harm – the type that kills many civilians but over a longer period – goes unrecorded and, to a degree, unchecked.

The perception of war, then, changes. Most war is low-simmering – the daily grind of death and violence. Large-scale attacks and hug deadly events are, in reality, few and far between. A reading of the news, though, gives a perception that the opposite might be the case.

Explosive Violence Injuries
Attention to detail is an essential virtue of any newsroom but, as AOAV has reported before, the media coverage of injuries in conflict is often inaccurate and patchy. This was also seen in the reporting of explosive weapon injuries in Syria.

In the chosen period (March 2011 – May 2019), AOAV’s global English-language monitor recorded 34,883 civilian injuries from explosive weapons there. In the same period, media organisations reported just a fraction of these, averaging 1,726 incidents; 5% of AOAV’s total.

  • BBC reporting covered 609 civilian injuries (1.8%) 
  • Al Jazeera captured 1,704 (4.9%)
  • The Guardian reported on 2,808 (8.1%)
  • The Daily Mail had 1,783 (5.1%); with wires it was 6,707 (19.2%)

The BBC was notable for its non-reporting of injuries from explosive violence. The contrast between their proportional coverage of fatalities (8%) and injuries (1.8%) suggests they pay significantly less attention to injuries than fatalities. For example, even though Al-Jazeera recorded fewer total incidents (77) than the BBC (108), they recorded a higher proportion of injuries from explosive weapons at 4.9% (1,704). This is likely because injured bodies are harder to verify than corpses.

The attention to injuries in media coverage, however, has declined over time, despite the conflict in Syria becoming no less injurious. In the first full year of the conflict, in 2012, all four media organisations tended to report injuries more often than they did in later years. 

For example, in 2012, the Guardian recorded 976 civilian injuries from explosive violence, an average of 36.1 injuries per incident. By 2015, this had halved to 18. Another three years on and the granularity in their reporting further declined to just 5.7 injuries per incident or just 85 in total for 2018. AOAV data shows there were 4,101 civilian injuries from explosive violence in Syria that year. 

Similar downward trends can be seen in the reporting of the BBC, Al Jazeera and The Daily Mail (see graph above), all suggesting that war reporting loses an element of detail as the conflict stretches on. In fact, the BBC didn’t report on a single civilian injury during 2014 despite the 2,580 injuries over 354 attacks that year. 

Clearly death is seen as more newsworthy than injury. But for the non-fatal physical harm of conflict to go unreported is to ignore grievous and life-changing injuries to innocent civilians and to again, in a sense, soften the reality of war.

Weapon Types
AOAV’s analysis also showed that certain explosive weapons are more reported on than others. For Al-Jazeera, 61% of their reports concern air-launched weapons (airstrikes and air-dropped bombs). 43% of the civilian casualties in Syria during this period (March 2011 – May 2019) were caused by air-launched weapons. This means that the Guardian’s reporting frequency of such weaponry (39%), and the BBC’s (46%) was proportionate. 

Suicide bombing, however, tends to attract more attention than other types of weaponry. For example, while the BBC and the Guardian reported air-launched attacks the most frequently, they also were far more likely to cover suicide bombings than landmine detonations. They reported on 12 and 17 suicide attacks respectively (from 165 recorded by AOAV), but not one landmine incident (from 182 recorded by AOAV). This is likely due to the fact suicide bombings invariably kill more people in one attack and often target significant landmarks.

Conclusion
This report highlights some concerning trends in the UK media’s reporting of civilian harm from explosive weapons in Syria. While a single news source cannot reasonably be expected to cover every incident involving explosive weapons, a review of such sources has shown significant limitations in capacity, consistency and detail.

Overall, AOAV found that the four media publishers examined tended only to cover incidents where large numbers of civilians were harmed. This might seem intuitive, but it also is an editorial focus that misses the greater harm. As AOAV’s data suggests, nearly 60% of explosive incidents in Syria resulted in five or fewer civilian deaths. In short, smaller but cumulatively substantial tragedies are lost in conflict reporting.

Furthermore, war reporting fatigue appears to set in. As the Syrian conflict went on, AOAV’s data suggests the number of explosive weapon incidents harming civilians increased. Yet, media coverage went the other way. Such a drop off has potentially worrying implications for how readers understand the terrible harm of explosive violence and, indeed, the Syrian conflict as a whole.

Of course, a number of factors are at play here. The frequency of international news stories in UK newspapers has been declining for decades and further financial pressures in the past few years has meant that funding for foreign reporting is even more scarce.

Combine this with the practical difficulties on the ground. Syria was not like Vietnam – accessing the war was difficult and extremely dangerous.

AOAV hopes that this review is not seen as an exercise in finger-pointing. News agencies are stretched thin and, in conflict, accurate reporting is notoriously hard. But editorial decisions as to which incidents to cover, what type of explosive weapon is prioritised in that coverage, how many dead or injured makes an attack “newsworthy” and whether coverage drops off over time, are decisions made every day in newsrooms. 

Ultimately, news is responsive – to events and to its audience. Many people flippantly say “the news is so depressing”. People won’t tune in for relentless misery and editors know this. As our research has shown, the media’s attention span of the conflict dwindled, even as deaths went up.

Editors preempt what an audience may say, that “if a thousand people were killed in Syria last year, why should I be surprised if it’s happened again?” The suffering seems inevitable, relentless and unsolvable. The hopeless and repetitive nature of the war influence what editors consider newsworthy.

Over time, such editorial decisions frame the public’s understanding of war – how harmful it is, who is causing the most harm, and the impact of war on civilian lives. In light of this, AOAV hopes that this news review offers food for thought for editors, correspondents and others on how explosive violence is reported, as well as the consequences of such reporting.

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Methodology
When selecting which media sources to analyse, we considered levels of readership, political ideology, funding and style of news reporting. BBC News [online] is the most popular single online service in the UK, with 23% of all adults using this as a source for news. Its reportage can be more accurately indexed than the broadcast output.  The Guardian [online] is a reputable broadsheet and the most read digital newspaper in the UK. The Daily Mail [online] is the most widely read newspaper in the UK. Unlike other news sites, The Daily Mail depends heavily on wire services for its online coverage of Syria. This makes its coverage very different from the print edition. Al-Jazeera English [online] represents a more specialised form of coverage as it has a global reach and a specific focus on the Middle-East.

To examine historical media coverage, we used Google advanced search. We searched the respective outlet plus ‘Syria’, each day between 15/03/2011 to 29/05/2019. We then read each article produced and counted the number of civilian casualties reported per explosive weapon incident. We excluded duplicated incidents. For the Daily Mail, we had to adapt our methodology. This was due to the fact that Google advanced search did not include articles that had been sourced from an external agency such as Reuters. Accordingly, we had to rely on the paper’s own internal search engine.

Before beginning this review, AOAV approached the BBC Middle East Online news desk about our methodology and they advised us that it was the best approach since their internal search engine system was poor. This poor internal search capacity raises questions about the BBC’s institutional memory and its ability to critique trends in its own coverage.

Finally, we excluded articles if there was not a specific number of civilian casualties listed, if it was not clearly identified as explosive violence, or if the article was reporting on an incident that they’d already been reported.

Additional reporting by: Meera Thoompail, Cai Cherry, Jake Hussona