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Ukraine, and a journalistic double standard

Ukraine, and a journalistic double standard

I wasn’t quite 14 when the Twin Towers fell. At that moment, I couldn’t have known that a mere three years later, I would be sitting in my first journalism class, the first of many to come. 

Despite the timing, the events of Sept. 11, 2001 had nothing to do with my decision to pursue journalism in high school, and eventually college. I was young and naive, but driven by a genuine curiosity of the world, its chaos, and its inhabitants. But it would be amid the aftermath of Sept. 11 where I would learn the cruel lesson of mainstream western journalism—that the lives, and deaths, of some people are worth more than others. 

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It’s a lesson that I’m reminded of today. As we’ve become bombarded with the heartwrenching images of devastation and distress in Ukraine — a people who deserve empathy in the face of violent uncertainty — my mind flashes back to the images and fallout I saw of another invasion, the invasion that began right before my interest in journalism changed the trajectory of my life. 


The United States’ invasion and war in Iraq — justified at the time behind the lie that Iraq harbored weapons of mass destruction and played a role in the Sept. 11 attacks — resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi civilians. But when discussing the Iraq war in my junior college journalism classes — where we metaphorically read from the gospel of so-called “objectivity” — the deaths of American soldiers, which were dramatically lower than those of Iraqi civilians, somehow “mattered” more. 

Confused, I tried to make sense of it. But the message ultimately was: “We’re American. The soldiers are on our side. The Iraqis are not.” 

Shamefully, little has apparently changed when it comes to western reporting on international catastrophes. As much of the world applauds the resiliency and bravery of Ukrainian citizens—some of whom have been filmed making molotov cocktails and placing their bodies in front of Russian tanks—that same media empathy is nonexistent when it comes to people on the opposite end of American imperialism.

When Iraqis resisted the American invasion, they were labeled insurgents. When Palestinians resist the illegal seizing of their homes at the hand of Israeli settlers with rocks and slings, they are met with U.S.-funded automatic gunfire. 

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American actor and activist Sean Penn, who was in Ukraine when Putin’s invasion began, issued a statement that read: “Ukraine is the tip of the spear for the democratic embrace of dreams. If we allow it to fight alone, our soul as America is lost.”

The statement, while veiled in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, fails. Was it not America that overthrew a democratically elected president in Chile on Sept. 11, 1973? Was it not America that invaded the islands of Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines, all in the name of expanding its empire? 

This absence of mainstream media empathy for people, whether they be from the Arab world, Latin America or Africa — all regions that have been witness to invasions and destabilizations on behalf of western imperial powers, not just the United States — is rooted in the belief that those from these parts of the world are lesser people, and are deserving of their suffering.  

Few will outright admit this. But given the mainstream journalistic double standard currently on display, it’s impossible to rebuke this. 

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And then you have Charlie D’Agata. The CBS London Bureau senior foriegn correspondent was broadcasting live from Ukraine on Feb. 26 when he said this: “But this isn’t a place with all due respect, you know, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. You know, this is a relatively civilized, relatively European—I have to choose those words carefully too—City where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.”

Expect or hope? “Civilized” and “European?” For a man whose job it is to communicate using words, I doubt D’Agata knows the definition of “careful.” 

In the span of a few seconds, he articulated catastrophes that include military invasions and airstrikes are only tragic when they occur against people who resemble the conquerors and colonizers of Africa, Asia and Latin America. In other carefully chosen words, “white.” 

In times like these, I try to remember why I chose to pursue journalism. I remember my younger naive self, who dreamt of seeing my byline published in noteworthy publications. It was during my studies at SF State that community media found me. It was then that I realized the responsibility as a journalist of color working in community media to amplify the struggles and stories of colonized, occupied and oppressed people around the world. For if we don’t document and amplify our stories, no one will. 

And should others try, they’ll do so without empathy.

El Tecolote turns 52 this August!

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