Airwars Report: News In Brief

For the last seven months, I researched and authored a report for Airwars, the London-based international military conflict monitor. The report is about US media coverage of civilian harm in the war against so-called Islamic State in Syria and Iraq.

You can read the report here.

This report addresses U.S. media coverage of civilian harm in the war against so-called Islamic State (ISIS) in Syria and Iraq, with the aim of offering practical recommendations to managing editors to help improve reporting on the subject in future conflicts.

The report represents the first comprehensive analysis of U.S. media coverage of civilian casualties in the recent war against ISIS. It includes two studies on the frequency and character of actual U.S. newspaper coverage of civilian harm during separate periods of the conflict; and another examining references to civilian harm at every Pentagon press briefing since the conflict began in August 2014. All three were commissioned by Airwars, two specifically for this report. The report also includes almost one hundred survey responses, collected via a confidential questionnaire and separately during at-length interviews, about civilian harm and conflict reporting. These are drawn from U.S. media professionals across the field, with a particular emphasis on field reporters and defense correspondents.

Key Findings

  • A significant majority of media professionals believe that it is the responsibility of U.S. news outlets to investigate all major cases of civilian harm during war. Civilian harm is a very important issue and critical to the coverage of both war and oversight of U.S. government and military strategy, policy, and operations, they said. Yet, news reporting on civilian casualties from international and U.S. actions, was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict.

  • Poor civilian harm coverage was often linked to the limited presence of reporters on-the-ground, except during key engagements; or to a lack of adequate sourcing. Yet, field reporters write or create most of the copy or content about civilian harm compared to their colleagues. They are also considered to be best suited to do so. Pentagon reporters say, for example, that they rely on field reporters to cover civilian harma factor to take into account when understanding challenges in Pentagon press pool engagements on the issue.

  • Civilian casualty coverage by field reporters is not adequately prioritized in the pool of available resources. Under-prioritized and under-resourced field reporting contributed to an inability to properly cover the issueespecially from U.S.-led actions in denied areas controlled by so-called Islamic State.

  • Civilian harm coverage lacks a relevant mandate by managing editors at major U.S. media institutions, industry professionals say. They also feel that the subject is generally siloed, fragmented, and largely self- directed by individual journalists. In the face of diminished field reporting in the war against ISIS, coverage of civilian harm was not properly coordinated by managing editors, and internal politics, mindsets, and biases risked affecting coverage, they added.

  • The Pentagon press corps rarely verbally inquired about Coalition- related civilian harm during the conflict against ISIS, even when reporting from the field was limited. Department of Defense officials were for example the first to raise civilian harm in three-quarters of the press conferences or briefings in which the issue was broached since 2014.

  • Challenges in the coverage of civilian harm were not solely due to resourcing or job demarcation issues, but also to sourcing concerns. In the absence of reliable or credible information about civilian harm via field reporters, media professionals say they increasingly rely upon open-source material and analysis, inter-governmental and humanitarian organizations, as well as international or regional monitors to collect and vet civilian harm information for them.

  • Reporting on civilian harm by friendly forces may also be more challenging or a point of discomfort in U.S. newsrooms. Media professionals who were surveyed say they considered media reporting on civilian harm caused by so-called Islamic State, by Syrian government forces, or by the Russia military to have been conducted more satisfactory than coverage of civilian harm caused by the U.S., by other Coalition partners, and by the Iraqi military.

  • Surveyed journalists also say that they rely on specialist non- governmental organizationslike Airwarsthat monitor civilian harm outside the conflict zone, as well as those that investigate it on the ground, more than they rely on official U.S. government or military sources, evidencing the significant role that these organizations play in reporting on the topic. They also say that these organizations and eyewitness accounts have more credibility than official U.S. government or military sources regarding civilian harm.

  • As a result, media professionals expressed support for a reputable and commonly accepted industry-wide methodology or standards for alternative civilian harm counts that can be used to help credibly report on the topic during conflicts.

  • There are also concerns that the U.S. militarys responsesor lack thereofto journalists information requests thwarted news coverage about civilian harm claims or made it more onerous and resource intensive to report on. Industry professionals said that the militarys responses were often not complete or timely enough to meet deadlines; and that as journalists they then had to conduct extensive and costly investigations or follow-ups to obtain the information required to perform due diligence.

  • Finally, more than half of U.S. media professionals who were surveyed said that they are not sufficiently prepared to report on civilian harm with regard to specific related disciplines, and that they would benefit from training in such disciplines.

Recommendations

  • A Clear Editorial Mandate for Civilian Harm Coverage at Media Outlets

    Consistent, comprehensive, and balanced reporting on civilian harm is impossible without a relevant editorial mandate by managing editors at major U.S. media organizations.

  • Persistent and Well-Resourced Field Reporting and Balanced On-The-Ground Sourcing

    The presence of properly resourced and prioritized field reporters remains a key part of ensuring that civilian harm coverage is consistent and balanced during wars. Without adequate resourcing or prioritization, reporting on civilian casualties from U.S. actions risks being fragmented, one-sided, or even non-existent.

  • Coordination of Civilian Harm Coverage by Pentagon Reporters and Those that Cover the U.S. Military Back Home

    While there is consensus that field reporters are best placed to cover civilian harm issues during U.S. wars, this is not always possible. Managing editors should therefore appropriately task and coordinate coverage of civilian harm from home, especially when on-the-ground reporting is diminished during conflictsas with the war against ISIS.

  • Support for Reputable Initiatives and Standards for Alternative Civilian Harm Counts

    Reliable and trustworthy counts of civilian harm are critical to reporting on the topic, and to understanding its significance in terms of the strategy, policy, and operations of the U.S. government and military. Such an independent effort to establish monitoring standards is currently underway by a consortium of international non-governmental organizations, led by EveryCasualty. Journalists remark that even a reputable media industry-wide consortium, to pool resources in order to vet civilian harm claims in airpower dominated and inaccessible conflict zones, might be one solution to the increasing requirements and challenges of covering the subject adequately in future wars.

  • Training in Disciplines Related to Civilian Harm Reporting

    More than three-quarters of surveyed journalists say they have never received training on how to cover civilian harm in military conflicts. Those same media professionals also say that they wish for such training, and that it would benefit both them and their coverage.

  • You can read the report here.

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