I have periodically written about violent conflicts that are generally overlooked in the United States. In 2023, I reviewed Ethiopia’s recent civil war, the collapse of Haiti’s government, and Sudan’s civil strife. Given that these bloody and tragic events have attracted comparatively little attention, I must ask: Why do some conflicts receive significantly more attention than others? What lessons should we take from this selectivity?
Imbalanced Media Coverage
“How much attention” any event or situation receives is hard to measure and inevitably somewhat subjective. Media coverage can perhaps serve as a proxy for general attention, though. Some data on such coverage are notable.
Searching U.S. Newsstream, a database of newspapers, news sites, and other media sources, turns up 12,892 results for “Ethiopia” during the roughly two years the country was devastated by civil war. Searching for “Haiti” from June 2021, when the current civil breakdown began, up to the present yields 30,401 results. Searching for “Sudan” from the current conflict’s start in April 2023 yields 8,735 results.
In contrast, a search for “Ukraine” since February 2022, when the Russian invasion began, yields 282,657 results. Searches for “Israel,” “Palestinian,” or “Gaza” since October of this year yield 55,246, 25,287, and 36,343 results, respectively. Similar searches of specific news outlets such as the New York Times or Washington Post show comparable disparities.
This imbalance is particularly striking for the Ethiopian civil war, which lasted about as long as the Ukraine-Russia war has and seems to have claimed an equal or greater number of lives. Yet Ethiopia’s war appears to have attracted only a fraction of the media coverage generated by Ukraine’s war or the far shorter Gaza war.
Probably many factors play a role in the unequal attention conflicts receive. Ethiopia’s civil war broke out in November 2020, when the United States was in the depths of the Covid-19 pandemic and a much-contested presidential election. As Israel is the leading recipient of US foreign aid — mostly military aid — one could argue that wars involving Israel have a special demand on American attention. The United States has considerable potential leverage over Israel that could be used to influence the Gaza war’s course.
These explanations go only so far, though. The Ethiopia war lasted for years after Covid-19 and the 2020 election receded in prominence, and the Haiti and Sudan crises emerged later. Moreover, the United States played a special role in yet another recent devastating conflict, the war in Yemen waged by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, both leading recipients of US arms sales. However, a U.S. Newsstream search for “Yemen” from 2015 to 2021 yields 101,023 results. Thus, Yemen over almost seven years of war yields results that are only double the results of “Israel” over the three months of the Gaza war and less than half of the “Ukraine” results.
The relative under-reporting of Ethiopia and Sudan is part of a larger pattern of under-reporting on Africa. Susan Moeller, in her book Compassion Fatigue (1999), noted studies in the 1980s and 1990s that found Africa to be an under-covered region, particularly relative to its population. Journalists have noted the relative lack of attention in the 1990s to a war in central Africa that killed millions.
Why this neglect of African nations such as Ethiopia and Sudan or nations such as Haiti where the people are of African heritage? To attribute such patterns purely to racism would be simplistic. To say racism has nothing to do with it would be naïve, though.
What Does It Mean?
In drawing lessons from these imbalances, I should rule out one specious conclusion: that because Americans pay so little attention to many global conflicts we therefore should not pay attention to any, out of some misplaced sense of “consistency.”
Any effort to alleviate human suffering is good, even if it is selective. I am glad so many have mobilized to protest the current suffering in Gaza. While I think the US response to the Ukraine war has been seriously flawed, a better, wiser approach to the war would be worth pursuing even if other wars did not receive the same attention.
However, the divide between the tragically broad range of violent conflicts in the world and the narrow range of American attention should be cause for humility. An activist highly engaged in the most talked-about crises is still paying attention to only a relatively small number of injustices and will inevitably neglect many. We should beware of self-righteousness.
We should also cultivate a broader perspective on global events and issues to correct the prevailing narrow focus. Rather than being driven purely by what the media claims is important, we need journalists and activists who seek out and shine light on injustices and suffering that are too often overlooked.