Which war gets the spotlight ? The difference in media attention between the invasion of Ukraine and wars in the Middle East

Lisa-Marie Sleypen, Anna Lauwereys, Dounia Boussetta

Which war gets the spotlight ? The difference in media attention between the invasion of Ukraine and wars in the Middle East

Which war gets the spotlight ? The difference in media attention between the invasion of Ukraine and wars in the Middle East

Lisa-Marie Sleypen, Anna Lauwereys, Dounia Boussetta
5 mai 2022

Today, news spreads faster than ever. Reporting is more accurate, more direct and thanks to new communication channels, it is no longer dependent on the physical distance between the event and the readers. However, distance still seems to play an important role when it comes to reporting on wars.

Friday 25th February 2022, the first Russian offensives in Ukraine took place. Since then, the media focus on this war. Some newspapers like Politico even underline the risk of a third world war. Popular media outlets such as the Flemish VRT NWS and the Qatari transnational channel Al-Jazeera have added a « Ukraine war » section to their websites. This section lists all articles about the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, countless other wars are raging around the world. According to Valérie Pouzol, writer and researcher in contemporary history, the Middle East is more than ever a region shaken by wars. However, these countries do not receive the same amount of media attention. A journalist from CBS News even said: « With all due respect, this isn’t a place, like Iraq or Afghanistan that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European city where you wouldn’t expect that, or hope that it’s going to happen.” This leads us to ask the following question: “Why do western media portray the conflicts in the Middle East differently than the wars closer to home?

A less critical view: the case of Israeli-Palestinian conflict

From the 19th century to today, a conflict is being fought between Israelis and Palestinians over various reasons such as territory, natural resources, and water, for instance. It is an extremely complex conflict that has caused over ten thousand deaths in the past 17 years. According to Brigitte Herremans, a Belgian Middle East expert from the University of Ghent, the media often present this conflict as two parties with a grudge against each other. Further, this framing is wrong. The Middle East expert considers this conflict as a very asymmetrical conflict: on one side, we have an occupying power (Israel) and on the other side we have an occupied nation (Palestine). In this aspect, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resembles Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, even though caution is needed when comparing wars because each war takes place in a different geopolitical context. She adds: “Despite some similarities between these conflicts, the international sphere is much less critical of Israel than of Russia.”

Some Palestinians make their displeasure heard: How can western leaders take retaliatory measures against Russia without taking similar measures against Israeli colonialism? How can the media shine a light on one war and leave another in the dustbin?  Faisal, a Welsh Palestinian and chemical engineer, said in the new media platform VoicesWales: “ There is bigotry occurring on a fundamental level when it comes to the western media.”

As specified by our following experts, there are several reasons why the media might favor reporting on the war in Ukraine over covering other conflicts such as in Palestine, Syria, or Yemen. The most obvious and straightforward reason is proximity.


According to historian, writer, professor, and Chair of the Arab World at the Institute of European Studies, Jihane Sfeir, Ukraine is located within the European continent and is therefore on the doorstep of the European Union. Consequently, this war directly concerns the European populations and the western media. There is this geographical proximity that is not negligible. Middle East expert, Brigitte Herremans, is on the same wavelength. She adds that many people from western countries are more sensitive to the invasion of Ukraine. According to her, this is due to the fact that this war is taking place not far from them. Then, this war may affect their lives. The so-called cultural proximity influences also the amount of media attention a war receives.

A study in social psychology, conducted by Leyens in 2000, states that proximity does play an important role in the media coverage of a conflict. This is called: The principle of proximity. In journalistic jargon, this concept is called the law of the dead mile. According to this theory, a media audience is always more sensitive to an event in which it can easily project itself. Thus, the death of a person living nearby is supposed to be more sorrowful than the death of a person in a country further away. According to Sarah Nedjar, a reporter for France info: « the war in Ukraine ticks all the boxes of this law of the dead mile ». However, according to the French journalist, this concept should be set aside in the media treatment of the various conflicts, as it is also based on cultural and even racist biases. As a result, the media would overlook conflicts or wars as important as the war in Ukraine simply because the people involved are not of the same culture or skin color.

In a way, Ukrainians resemble Europeans more than Arab or African people- Jihane Sfeir


Jihane Sfeir also emphasizes that the war raging in Ukraine would be easier for Europeans to understand and communicate. It is a clear war: one country invades another. But, if we look at the war in Yemen, for instance,  it’s immediately more complex. It’s a war that got bogged down in a civil war, in a tribal war and then it became a regional war, where Saudi Arabia and Hezbollah were involved. In addition, European citizens do not understand and do not have any affinity with these actors. Thus, most wars in the Middle East become a matter for experts.


Proximity and complexity are not the only reasons for the reduced media coverage of wars in the Middle East. If we take the case of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we can see that the longevity factor plays an important role.  This conflict is over 74 years old now.  According to previous expert, Jihane Sfeir, the media does not cover this conflict these days, because it has already been covered a lot in the past and it’s slowly fading away in the media. Now, journalists are focusing on the recent invasion of Ukraine which is a more recent conflict, much more blatant and also much closer. She supposes that if Ukraine gets bogged down in a long war, the media coverage will last for a while, but maybe in three or four years, they will probably move on as well if it is possible. She adds that the media coverage will probably not be as militant and huge as today.

The importance of distinguishing media channels

However, not all media neglect the conflicts in the Middle East. It would be wrong to generalize. That is why it is important to keep in mind the editorial line of the media concerned. Each news medium has its own identity. Their editorial line highlights which news items are relevant to the public according to the news medium. For example, Al-Jazeera has a much wider media coverage as it is a transnational channel. Whereas, RTBF is a national broadcaster. Following Jihane Sfeir a distinction should be made between the coverage by 24h/24 news, national broadsheets, transnational media, and others. “We often mention ‘the media, but it is an amalgamation of different groups with different goals”, states Middle East expert Herremans. Furthermore, it would be wise to highlight that the news media influence, in a certain way, public opinion.

Agenda Setting

If journalists only report on the western conflicts, this may impact the mindset of the masses. The media’s influence on its audience can not be underestimated. Citizens rely on their sources of information, not only for the news itself but also because the media show them the events they consider to be of general interest. The most important or relevant news for the population. Then, the audience will automatically perceive it in the same way. “If media pay more attention to the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the public will automatically perceive this event as more important”, states Jan Boesman, Media researcher. This theory is known as the concept of agenda-setting”. Of course, people are not passive creatures. They control their perception of importance, but that does not alter the fact that journalists should be aware of the power of their actions.

According to our experts, the war in Ukraine is in the spotlight for the various reasons mentioned above. Most of them are not surprised that the spotlight is actually on Europe and more specifically on Ukraine. If for some people, this media focus on what is happening in Ukraine, would be considered privileged. For others, it would be considered normal.

I do not take offense at this, after all, we must advocate more solidarity and not less.- Brigitte Herremans

However, it is crucial to reflect on the unequal media coverage and the effects it can have on the minds of people. On social media, many people are stupefied that the media and the western population somehow turn a blind eye to what is happening around the world. Ali Farag, a professional Egyptian squash player, called out double standards on Ukraine coverage.

Nobody should never accept any killings around the world and any oppression. People need to look at the oppression around the world. For example, Palestinian have been going through oppression for the past 74 years. Only because it’s doesn’t fit the narrative of the media in the west, we couldn’t talk about it. But, now we talk about Ukraine… So, we can talk about Palestinians. -Ali Farag

Public opinion is more divided than ever. Several Internet users underlined the notion of possible disguised racism behind this editorial choice. In addition, several politicians or journalists have taken the liberty of comparing the different conflicts in a rather discriminatory way. Which does not help to calm the debate. For instance, concerning Ukrainian refugees, Philippe Corbé, a journalist at BFMTV spoke. Several other journalists too.

These are not going on vacation! These are people who are fleeing war! We are not talking about Syrians fleeing the Syrian regime’s bombings. We are talking about Europeans leaving in their cars. Their cars look like our cars. They just trying to save their lives.
– Philippe Corbé

In saying this, these public figures are dehumanizing in a way the suffering of people in the world. Which might not be acceptable in the public sphere. In social psychology, this phenomenon is called dehumanization. The more a person’s daily life resembles our own, the more compassionate we will feel towards them. On the other hand, the more their life is opposed to ours, the less compassion we will have for them. This is determined by unconscious psychological biases. We have on the one hand the in-group (people similar to you) and on the other hand the out-group (people opposite to you). Our emotions will therefore be stronger and more empathetic towards people from the same group as us.  Thus, an emotional connection is created.

Emotional connection

Western people identify themselves with the victims in Ukraine, rather than with the victims in the Middle East. According to Herremans, the media plays a role in this, since it often individualizes the Ukrainian people, whilst the victims in Syria, for example, are made invisible. Carl Stellweg, a foreign affairs journalist who used to work for the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad, published several articles concerning the Middle East. During this time, he noticed that people automatically link the Middle East to misery.

In the media people only see this image of dust, blood, bare feet in broken plastic slippers, guttural sounds, fanatics, and Islam. The media does not portray this region in a way that arouses interest. It would help a lot if journalists did not only write about the wars and the misery but also about entrepreneurship in the Middle East for example.- Carl Stellweg

To conclude, all the reasons mentioned above and this emotional connection could also explain why the war in Ukraine gets the biggest spotlight and makes more people in the West react than other wars. Indeed, emotion is very important in the media and especially in times of war.