International press has under-reported explosive violence in Syria

Aftermath of a car-bomb explosion in Tal Abyad, northern Syria Aftermath of a car-bomb explosion in Tal Abyad, northern Syria © AFP

This article is a brief presentation of AOAV’s study proving a significant under-reporting of explosive violence in Syria by foreign media outlets

Action On Armed Violence (AOAV) is a British research centre whose main purpose is to investigate and report the incidence of armed violence in the world, in order to raise awareness on the issue and help contrast it. AOAV decided to study the online coverage of four media outlets - Al-Jazeera, the Guardian, the BBC and the Daily Mail - with regards to explosive violence in Syria, from the beginning of the war in March 2011 to May 2019. The main finding of the study is that there has been a significant under-reporting of such incidents, leading to the alarming risk of misperception of the whole conflict by public opinion. 

AOAV recorded around 4,802 incidents of explosive violence in Syria throughout the examined period. However, the aforementioned four media outlets reported on average only 123 incidents, which is around 2.6% of the total. AOAV’s study underlines how the media's interest in explosive incidents in Syria peaked in 2016 and declined by 57% in 2017, even though it was the deadliest year for civilians killed by explosives in Syria, with around 13,056 civilian casualties. Thus, media coverage of such incidents does not depend on the number of casualties. Another important, yet alarming, finding of the report is that the four media outlets tended to prioritize casualties, underreporting non-fatal injuries. Even though death might be considered more newsworthy than injuries, the risk of under-reporting the latter is to soften the reality of war and to foster its general misperception. 

Moreover, as the study shows, certain types of explosive weapons have always been more reported than others. For instance, 61% of the incidents reported by Al-Jazeera in the examined period concerned air-launched weapons, even though they actually caused 43% of civilian casualties. BBC and the Guardian, besides, were much more likely to report suicide bombings than landmine detonations. A further finding of AOAV’s study was that these media outlets tend to report incidents reaching a certain threshold of casualties, while minor incidents – though being much more common - usually remain unrecorded. This changes the general perception of war, as people think it is made of large-scale attacks when these are actually few and rare. The everyday dimension of war as a series of smaller, daily and not always deadly attacks, thus, goes unreported. 

AOAV’s study has the aim of underlying some problematic trends in the way international media outlets report a conflict, in order to raise awareness and bring a positive change. As the report underlines, long-lasting conflicts – as the Syrian war - usually result in a progressive loss of attention by foreign media. Though understandable, this general trend – together with the tendency to only report large-scale attacks and to under-record non-fatal injuries - can result in a dangerous misperception of conflicts by the public opinion. Thus, AOAV suggests that wiser editorial decisions should be made in order to find a balance between what meets the readers’ needs and what accurately reflects the reality of war. 


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Author: Margherita Curti; Editor: Matteo Consiglio

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