Where’s the Coverage of Civilian Casualties in the War on ISIS?

Coalition forces hitting an ISIS target in Syria's Kobani district on October 22, 2014.

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Coalition forces hitting an ISIS target in Syria's Kobani district on October 22, 2014.

New studies reveal important gaps in coverage of this aspect of the anti-ISIS operation, largely a war of air strikes.

Most journalists believe that reporting on the loss of innocent lives is central to coverage of military conflicts. Yet coverage of civilian casualties in the war against so-called Islamic State has been largely absent, to the detriment of the public’s ability to both understand and weigh the costs of war against the national interest. 

Despite efforts to improve precision targeting systems, and to better protect the life of non-combatants by both the U.S. and allies, civilian casualties remain a ubiquitous reality in military conflicts. Since the war on the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria began in 2014, 29,000 civilian deaths have been locally alleged against the U.S.-led coalition, according to the London-based non governmental organization Airwars. Coalition officials themselves concede causing more than 1,300 civilian deaths. Yet news coverage of civilian casualties has been largely absent. Why is that? 

For the last six months, I’ve been trying to answer that question for Airwars. The organization commissioned two studies of U.S. newspaper coverage of civilian harm during separate periods of the conflict, and another study of references to civilian harm at Pentagon press briefings since August 2014. 

We also asked almost 100 media professionals who covered the conflict against ISIS in Iraq and Syria about their views and experiences of reporting on civilian harm. Their responses were clear: reporters believe civilian harm remains critical to the coverage of both war and oversight of U.S. government and military strategy, policy and operations. 

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However, reporting on civilian casualties was found to be either absent or nearly so during key periods of the conflict. For example, between October 2015 and March 2016, when some of the most intense fighting was happening in Iraq, the five major U.S. newspapers (the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, The New York Times and USA Today) published a total of just five articles on reported civilian harm from coalition airstrikes. 

“Siloed” and largely “self-directed” is how media professionals describe civilian-harm coverage at their own organizations. Split between the relevant foreign bureaus that covered Iraq and Syria, and the newsrooms back home that cover the U.S. military and defense issues, many of those interviewed said that individual bureau chiefs and newsroom editors often lack the bandwidth or authority to task other bureaus and newsrooms with the subject, leading to intermittent or fragmented reporting.

When I spoke to conflict-focused journalists about why their stories about the death of civilians were being rejected, the number one reason was “lack of editorial interest.” More so than “lack of space for content,” “lack of financial resources,” or even “lack of security on-the-ground.” 

The few outstanding examples of coverage were generally the result not of editors’ direction, but of individual journalists who had made the subject a priority. As one author and freelance foreign correspondent said, “The fact is that these stories aren’t being prioritized.” 

This low editorial priority is compounded by a perceived lack of public interest in the subject. “You won’t see civilian casualty reports that often,” one assignment editor told me bluntly. “You won’t keep spitballing them every day. You’ll save it up until you’ve got a pretty large death toll.” 

However, reporters also know that compelling civilian casualty journalism is more than just tallying body counts, as important as those are in any overall analysis of the costs of war. Reporting should also help inform us about U.S. military doctrine, operations, and more importantly, the progress of a war, they said. Otherwise, news of casualties risks being like reporting on “fouls at a ball game,” as one journalist described it.

In fact when it comes to civilian casualties, one journalist at a major U.S. cable news outlet said “it often catches us by surprise what sorts of stories capture people’s attention.” It seemed, to the journalist at least, that audiences are less interested in numbers than they are in people. This desire for human stories presents a difficult challenge, especially for news reporters who often had to cover this war remotely. 

With modern military conflicts dominated by airpower, there are fewer U.S. forces on the ground and subsequently less on-the-ground reporting. Yet where I found agreement among reporters, both at home and abroad, was that civilian harm is best covered by field reporting. When I was discussing the experience of covering the battle of Mosul, one national security journalist explained that it “makes a lot of difference when you can see how intimate an area—that has become a battlefield—is: how people are living cheek to jowl; how big the buildings are; how many people roughly live in them. Are they fighting near a school? Are they fighting near a hospital?” 

Our survey found that field reporters write or create copy or content on civilian harm seven times more than national security or general news desk reporters and editors, and five times more than those who cover the Pentagon. 

Yet almost half of those I surveyed also said that field reporting on civilian harm was not adequately prioritized in the pool of available resources at the media outlets they worked for. Inadequate resourcing for field reporting on civilian harm in turn meant existing bureaus and staff were unable to devote enough time to develop source networks; or to overcome access, security, and logistical challenges that civilian harm coverage requires. 

Pentagon reporters also told me that they rely on field reporters to cover civilian harm. Perhaps assuming that others were investigating and reporting on the topic, those same Pentagon reporters turned out to have done a relatively poor job inquiring about the issue. In some 919 press conferences the Pentagon has held since the war began almost five years ago, the press pool rarely asked about coalition-related civilian harm. Even when U.S. military officials overtly flagged the issue, the press followed up at most about half the time. 

When field reporting is diminished and coverage is not appropriately tasked and resourced elsewhere, the issue of civilian harm falls through institutional cracks. Beyond its documentary significance, the lack of such reporting can have serious implications not only for affected communities, but also for U.S. national interest. 

Airpower-dominated conflicts, especially when they are conducted without large contingents of U.S. ground forces, should get greater scrutiny and more consistent oversight by major media institutions, not less. U.S. involvement in conflicts in places like Niger and Yemen, for example, have been shown to have occurred without Congressional awareness. Moreover, in the absence of reporting by the U.S. media, the subject does not simply disappear.  Accounts of civilian harm alleged against the U.S. and its allies are reported on by the local and foreign press as well as by belligerents to the conflict, including by U.S. adversaries.  Consistent and balanced reporting about civilian harm by the U.S. media can adjudicate biases and mitigate distortion.  On-the-ground reporting enables media professionals to fact-check allegations and U.S. government claims about the true costs and progress of the war.  

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