Marcus Ryder’s Black On White TV blog examines issues of race and diversity in British TV and across the media. It is interested in issues of representation and equality both in front of the camera and behind it

Dear newsroom editors and journalists reporting on the current war in Ukraine,

First may I thank you all for doing an incredibly important job under incredibly difficult conditions.

I am sure you are all aware of the old adage; “The first casualty of war is truth”, first attributed to US Senator Hiram Warren Johnson in 1918. In 2022 it is important that diversity, and our principles of anti-racism, aren’t the second casualty.

We must separate the relative importance and global strategic significance of a war in Europe, compared to other conflicts, from the relative importance of the victims of different conflicts around the world.

I fully understand why a war involving a Superpower (Russia) on European soil may be deemed (rightly or wrongly) as more significant than other conflicts. Evaluating the importance of different wars and conflicts are by definition the difficult editorial decisions editors and journalists need to make almost every day.

However a conflict’s  relative global importance must not be confused with the relative importance of the victims of these conflicts.

All human life should be viewed as equally important. European lives should not be viewed as having more value than African, Asian, or any other lives around the world.

Deaths in times of war are tragic wherever they occur and we must avoid linking their importance, or how much sympathy we have for them, to their ethnicity or where they are based in the world.

While the direct reporting of valuing European lives as being more important may be relatively easy to avoid, journalists must also guard against doing it indirectly.

Reports that try to increase an audience’s emotional connection to European victims by drawing comparisons to how the victims are just like people “like us” , when this type of comparison hasn’t been used when reporting other conflicts, sends out the signal that we should value them more because they are European. 

Also reporting that draws comparisons to the civilian Ukranian victims to how similar they are to British victims of WWII (during the blitz) when similar comparisons have not been made to civilian victims of bombings in other parts of the world sends out a similar message.

Not clearly, and explicitly, explaining your news values and why you believe this conflict is strategically and politically important because of its geography and the parties involved, as opposed to the people involved also sends out a potentially dangerous message. Simply saying it is important “because it is in Europe” can easily be misinterpreted that it is because the people involved are European.  

We must also be careful of the experts and pundits that we put on our broadcasts when reporting on the news. I fully appreciate that some pundits may have different values when it comes to diversity and anti-racism, but they may be an expert in the field and necessary to interview. However when an interviewee stresses the importance of the civilian victims by drawing attention to their race the presenter can just gently remind them that “obviously their lives have value irrespective of what they look like” and move on in a non-confrontational manner.

The current war in Ukraine could be a seminal moment in how newsrooms respect diversity and incorporate anti-racism into their work.

I implore all journalists to continue your excellent work while remembering our core values. 

Please stay safe.

Yours faithfully,

Marcus Ryder

Marcus Ryder is the Head of External Consultancies at the Sir Lenny Henry Centre for Media Diversity which was set up to explore and increase diversity across the industry including journalism, acting, film, TV and radio in both front-of-house and behind the scenes roles.

He has spent over 25 years working in the media across the world including eight years as a senior executive at the BBC, winning numerous industry awards – from BAFTAs to Royal Television Society Awards and Foreign Press Association Awards. He has previously held the position of Chair of the Royal Television Society Diversity Committee and is currently a trustee at the Press Pad Charitable Foundation.

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2 thoughts on “An open letter on the reporting of Ukraine: Do not let people of colour be a casualty of war

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