Chemical Attack in Syria: the subjectivity of Russian and American media coverage

Two weeks ago, Syria’s city Khan Shaykhun was hit by a chemical weapon resulting in more than 80 casualties. A few hours after the attack, Western countries without evidence, alleged that the attack was carried out by Bashar al-Assad’s government. Three days later, Russia snatched the opportunity to condemn The United States after they ordered a strike against Syrian government forces.

The Russian and American media coverage of these events show high evidence of subjectivity and violation to journalism practices. A purposed intention of aiming to support the political positions of their governments.

According to W.A.E. Skurnik, of Cambridge University, foreign news coverage supports national interests and especially in time of war and conflict. “Most newspapers are national enterprise, in the sense that they tend to project to their audience a world view compatible with their nation’s outlook on world affairs.” he said.

 It is not surprising that Western media seized the opportunity of this attack to reinforce each of their corresponding government’s position against the regime of Bashar al-Assad in Syria. It was also an opportunity for Russian media to denounce American actions in Syria.

The Syrian Civil War started in 2011 while opposition groups began to protest against Assad’s government, demanding democratic reform and an increase of freedom. An armed conflict began confronting Assad’s government, controlling the Syrian Armed Forced, to the opposition, represented by the Free Syrian Army (FSA). The United States of America, a strong supporter of the FSA has expressed their intention, and the necessity to remove Assad from power. In 2015, while Russia announced its support to Assad’s government and denounced the US of aggression against a sovereign country and crime against international law, the US accused Russia to support an authoritarian regime, guilty of crime against humanity. This coalition engenders an airstrikes proxy war between the US and Russia.

Both countries have interests in the Syrian civil war and undoubtedly media reflects the national interests of each country which is mainly based on the removal – or not – of Bashar al-Assad government.

The amount of coverage of the chemical attack and the American strike, by Rossiyskay Gazeta a Russian newspaper, and the New York Times, tells how the public opinion have been influenced. Wanta, Golan and Lee, for the Journalism and Mass Communication Quartely, said, “the more overall media coverage a nation receives, the more individuals will think it is of vital importance to the country’s interest.”

In that purpose, I looked at the New York Times and the Rossiyskay Gazeta coverage of the chemical attack in Syria and the following strike of the US between April 4th and April 14th. While not entirely scientific in its methodology, I found a strong correlation between the coverage and the support of national interests in both countries.

Coverage of the chemical attack (number of published articles) US (New York Times) Russia (Rossiyskay Gazeta)
April 4th 2 3
April 5th 5 5
April 6th 6 6
April 7th 15 33
April 8th 5 8
April 9th 1 2
April 10th 1 2
April 11th 5 4
April 12th 2 5
April 13th 3 7
April 14th 1 5
Total 46 81

media coverage comparison US Vs Rus

On April 7th, the sharp increase of Russian media coverage shows undoubtedly the massive importance the US strike is for Russian interests. It had represented an opportunity to condemn the US and their actions.

 Rossiyskay Gazeta not only published a lot on the US strike, but also very negatively. “The more negative media coverage a nation receives, the more individuals will think negatively about that nation.” said Wanta, Golan and Lee.

Rossiyskay Gazeta used this opportunity to accuse, critique, and show the danger of the US policy. It condemned the “irresponsibility of and shortsightedness” of the US and saw it as an “aggression against the republic” of Syria.

The New York Times published much less on the strike, it apparently doesn’t want to promote an action that killed civilians. An example that demonstrates clearly the use of media coverage to fulfill national interests and influence the public opinion on an event.

In an article published on April 7th by Rossiyskay Gazeta titled “US strike on an air base in Syria has claimed the lives of four children.” The mention of the death of children, purposely accuses the US action in Syria. What is important to mention is that after the chemical attack which sadly also killed children, the Russian newspapers shyly mentioned it inside an article, and no number has been given.

“Newspaper tend to select, from the myriad available news, that which harmonize with their nations’ interests” said W.A.E. Skurnik. A verified statement while the New York Times never mentioned the dead of children after the US strike. At that point who should we trust?

And, interestingly, if both the US and Russia have the same number of media coverage between the day of the chemical attack and the US strike (4th and 7th), the Russians did not talk about the chemical attack. Supposedly because it wouldn’t be in its best interests. Could that reveal the possible implication of Assad’s government in the attack?

But, through the bombing of a Syrian military camp, the US strike seriously helped the American interests in Syria. Could the accusations aimed at Assad’s government for the chemical attack be used to justify the strike?

No evidence on Assad’s implications in the attack have been found yet, however American media did not wait to blame the Syrian government. They focused on sensationalism and emotion at the expense of analysis and questioning. A serious impediment to peace journalism principles and practices.

“Peace journalism avoid victimizing and emotional languages, avoid making opinion into fact … it offers an analysis about the sources of conflicts and seeks a discussion of a wide range of solutions,” said Steven Youngblood, the director for Global Peace Journalism.

When the New York Times, in an article published on April 11th reported a quote from Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary who compares Assad to Hitler for gassing its own people, it purposely appeals the public opinion to condemn Assad.

When the Rossiyskay Gazeta, Russian newspaper, defines the US April 7th strike as an “aggression”, it uses emotional and sensational language to purposely discredit US action. On the other hand when the New York Times writes “The chemical attacks was just his [Assad] most recent atrocity,” it uses emotional language and openly makes an opinion by charging Assad.

The American media surprisingly supported Trump when he ordered the drop of 59 missiles in Syria in response of the chemical attack in Khan Shaykhun. They pictured him as emotional and brave without even questioning his decision.

“On Thursday, an emotional president Trump took the greatest risk of his young presidency,” wrote Mark Landler for the New York Times. He insists on the “big impact” pictures of children had on president Trump. He minimizes the importance of Trump’s decision, and it forces the reader to have compassion and agreement with the decision. The subjectivity of Landler is obvious, the reason for a president to go to war will always be humanitarian. If Trump has that much compassion for Syrian children, why would he ban their access to America?

The difference of terms used while covering the chemical attack interestingly approves the view that the media coverage has somewhat become subjective and doubtful while supporting national interests.

The New York Times talks about the “worse chemical bombing in Syria,” while Rossiyskay Gazeta talks about an “incident” in Syria. Either the term used is exacerbated or either it is minimized, in an aim of condemning the Assad regime or supporting it in the other. Rossiyskay Gazeta issued even more restriction by talking about “the presumed chemical attack.”

The sources used by both newspapers to sustain their claims are doubtful. On April 4th, the New York Times reported the number of casualties from the chemical attack, the source cited works in an hospital for the opposition, then against Assad. The Rossiyskay Gazeta cited “official sources” which does not validate the reliability of the source.

The conflict in Syria is extremely complex and destructive for the population. Thus, making the task even harder for journalists. However, through the comparison of Russian and American media coverage, a lot of information is contradictive in order to support the political views of their government. We are far from the truth and objectivity of journalist principles, making it harder and harder to know what or who to believe.


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