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Presenting events dealing with death in the media is never meaningless: the goal is to touch the audience, call in the pathos. Even if casualties may look like an objective statistic, its use is not necessarily unbiased.

Difference of treatment between miscellaneous news and war news

Most of the media love miscellaneous news. Why? Because the audience loves them. At least, that is what some journalists think. However, a miscellaneous news focusing on the death of a single person is not representative at all of the truth. Data shows that the homicide ratio in England is only 11.7/ 1M inhabitants.  Journalistic interest may then be debatable. Thus, why does the media talk less about war casualties? War casualties have a direct impact on citizens’ vision, action, behaviour and also political support. Yet, people feel more connected to an event that happens in their home country rather than overseas.

When war casualties are uncertain

The deliberate omission of casualties by the media can be problematic. In international conflicts, war casualties are often biased by belligerents on both sides. This lack of transparency makes the job more difficult for journalists who either communicate inaccurate information or do not give any numbers. Data vary between different organisations. For example, with the Russian-Ukrainian war, both parties have interests to preserve. Other parties tried to make statistics, like the United States who highly supports Ukraine but focuses more on Russian analytics to estimate the consequences the conflict would have on their country. Nevertheless, U.S. officials claimed that “casualty figures remained difficult to estimate because Moscow is believed to routinely undercount its war dead and injured, and Kyiv does not disclose official figures.”

However, knowing the number of casualties during an interstate conflict is essential. It helps to understand the balance of power between different armed groups. Thus, not evoking all data of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict prevents the public from understanding the ambiguity of the battles occurring in the Middle East. Human casualties from the Israeli side are often derisory compared to the Palestinian side. All UK newspapers, including The Guardian, does not even mention Palestinian deaths. The EU member states cannot find an agreement on the conflict even if it is clear that Israel is privileged. After a misunderstanding with the European Commission, the commissioner for neighbourhood and enlargement, Olivér Varhely, confirmed that funds and humanitarian aid for the Palestinians would not be frozen. This event questions if the EU acts this way to protect their interests in the Middle East.

Do corpses images have a place the media?

At the beginning of the war in Ukraine, images of dead civilians in streets destroyed by the Russian army were shown- often without being blurred- on TV and in the newspapers, especially of the Boutcha’s massacre. Was it necessary to show these violent images which may offend young people? Was it necessary to film these corpses in an indecent way and diffuse them on TV? Does the shock of the images make it harder to analyse and understand the war, or does it work as an electroshock for Western public opinion and political leaders? Boutcha’s images where many lifeless bodies laid on the pavements undoubtedly helped to understand the intensity and atrocity of the crimes committed by the Russian troops. The British journalist Suzanne Moore does not share this opinion and wrote back in 2014: “We are told that to understand war we need to see the slaughter of civilians. […] We need not just to see but to imagine. Those who cannot imagine the suffering of others are those who continue to justify it.

The remaining question is whether these images really led to a change of European policy on the issue. Another question is the authenticity of images. Can we believe everything we see?

By Nina Thevenet

If you want to know more about this issue and have a french point of view, click here !

To go further on our November file dedicated to death, you can read our Culture and Society sections’ articles on our blog.