War is a source of suffering. The U.S. media is not equally fair in how and when they report on this suffering.
Consider, for instance, the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, both in February 2022. The media’s attention to these crises shows biases that are less concerned with the human consequences than the United States’ role and relationship with the warring parties.
In Yemen, the U.S. The U.S. is supporting and arming the Saudi-led alliance, whose airstrikes have caused immense suffering to millions of people. In Eastern Europe, however, the U.S. The U.S. is arming Ukraine and assisting its efforts to counter missile attacks that have targeted civil infrastructure and to retake territories where horrifying killings have occurred.
We are scholars who have studied genocide, mass atrocities, and international safety. So we compared the New York Times headlines from the last seven and half years, spanning the Yemen conflict and the first nine months of the Ukraine conflict.
Since the Russian invasion started in February 2022, front-page stories about Ukraine have been common. Front-page stories about Yemen are rare compared to other countries. In some cases, such as coverage of food security, they were published more than three years after the coalition began the blockades, which led to the crisis.
Protesters call for increased U.S. assistance to Ukraine in order to defeat Russia. Lev Radin/Pacific Press/LightRocket by Getty Images
According to the United Nations Office for the High Commissioner of Human Rights, by this time, 14 million Yemenis already faced “catastrophic insecurity.”
Ukraine: More information
We classified headlines about Yemen and Ukraine as “episodic,” which means they were focused on a specific event, or “thematic,” which told that the context was more important. A headline that is episodic is “Appearing Saudi Strike Kills At Least Nine Yemeni Family.” Another thematic headline is “Ferocious Russian attacks Spur Accusations Of Genocide In Ukraine.”
The New York Times’ headlines about Yemen focused mainly on the events. 64% of headlines were devoted to Yemen. The headlines about Ukraine, on the other hand, placed a higher emphasis on context and accounted for 73% of total articles. This is because newspapers can lead readers to a different interpretation by focusing on episodic stories or contextualized ones.
The headlines that are mainly episodic on Yemen could give the impression the damage reported is not a symptom of the violence by the coalition but rather an incident. While contextual articles on Ukraine reflect the wider implications of the conflict, they also show stories of Russian accountability and responsibility.
Different ways of assessing blame
The accountability in the coverage is also very different. We found 50 headlines in Yemen reporting on specific attacks by the Saudi-led Coalition. Only 18 headlines – 36% – attributed the responsibility to Saudi Arabia and the coalition. This headline, from April 24, 2018, is an example of a headline that fails to attribute blame. It reads: “Yemen strike hits wedding and kills more than 20.” The reader might easily assume that the Saudis were responsible for the attack instead.
It’s hard to imagine that a Russian attack on a Ukrainian wedding would be headlined: “Ukraine strike hits wedding and kills more than 20.”
In the time period that we examined, 54 headlines were published on specific attacks in Ukraine. Of these, 50 reported on Russian attacks and the other four on Ukrainian attacks. Of the 50 headlines describing Russian attacks, 88% or 44 of them explicitly attribute responsibility to Russia. In contrast, none of the headlines about Ukrainian attacks explicitly attributed responsibility. It shows how selectively responsibility is assigned in Ukraine, when Russia’s actions are covered. But this is often hidden when the Saudi-led coalition attacks Yemen.
In contrast, Russia’s efforts to reach out to civilians have been categorically rejected: “Russia’s Explanations For Attacking Civilians Wither under Scrutiny.”
Two humanitarian crises in one story
Both invasions created situations of food security – in Yemen, creating a risk of national famine and in Ukraine, compromising the global grain supply. The way that news reports discuss hunger in both countries is very different.
Russian actions blocking grain imports and destroying agricultural infrastructure and crops are described as intentional and weaponized . “Russia is Using Ukrainians Hunger as a War Weapon.”
The Saudi-led coalition blockade was not given the same attention, despite the fact that it is the primary cause for the famine, and even compared to torture, by the World Organisation Against Torture. The coalition was rarely mentioned in the coverage of the Yemeni hunger crisis. For example, this headline from March 31, 2021: “Famine Stalks Yemen as War Drags On and Foreign Aid Weaken.”