New Airwars study identifies major challenges in US media coverage of civilian harm during war against ISIS

New Airwars study identifies major challenges in US media coverage of civilian harm during war against ISIS

Despite a significant majority of almost 100 surveyed journalists believing that the reporting of civilian casualties remains critical to broader war coverage, major US news organisations have too often failed properly to report on the issue during the five year conflict against so-called Islamic State.

These are some of the key finding of a major new Airwars study which publishes on July 16th.

News In Brief is a comprehensive analysis of US media coverage of civilian casualties in the recent war against ISIS. Authored by investigative journalist Alexa O’Brien, the report canvasses the in-depth views of almost 100 US media professionals, with a particular emphasis on field reporters and defence correspondents.

With more than 29,000 civilian deaths locally alleged from US-led Coalition actions in Iraq and Syria, the report questions whether “US readers, listeners and viewers obtained a proper sense of the cost of modern war?”

Airwars also looked at the frequency and character of actual US newspaper coverage of the issue during two key periods of the conflict. A third review examined any references to civilian harm at more than 900 Pentagon press briefings since the war against ISIS began in August 2014.

O’Brien’s study also includes five practical recommendations to managing editors, to help improve reporting on the issue in future conflicts.

Key findings

  • A significant majority of media professionals believe it's the responsibility of news outlets to investigate all major cases of civilian harm during US wars. Coverage is critical not only for a proper understanding of war itself, but also to help ensure the proper oversight of US government and military strategy, policy, and operations, journalists said.

  • Yet when Airwars measured actual coverage, news reporting on civilian casualties from US-led actions against ISIS was found to be largely absent during key periods of the conflict. For entire months, no major US news organisations reported on civilian harm resulting from US-led Coalition actions – although the alliance itself has since confirmed many such deaths.

  • “Declining foreign bureaus and newsroom staff at US media outlets; a ferocious news cycle dominated by domestic politics; the quandary of credible sourcing for civilian casualty claims; little opportunity to embed with US troops on the ground; and the expense and risk of security and logistics for reporters in the field” all helped contribute to generally poor reporting of civilian harm, Airwars concludes.

  • Major US media were also five times more likely to report on civilian harm from Russian and Assad regime actions at Aleppo than they were from US and allied actions at Mosul, the study found – despite similar levels of locally reported civilian harm in late 2016. That suggests a reluctance by newsrooms to engage on the issue when US forces are implicated, the report suggests.

  • Reporters in newsrooms are themselves aware of the challenges, with 63% of those surveyed saying they were somewhat or very unsatisfied with US media industry coverage of civilian harm during the war against ISIS.

    Recommendations for improvement

    The Airwars study suggests practical steps which can be taken to help improve future newsroom coverage of civilian harm. The five recommendations are:

    A clear editorial mandate for civilian harm coverage at media outlets

    Persistent and well-resourced field reporting, and balanced sourcing

    Coordination of civilian harm coverage by Pentagon reporters and others covering the US military back home


    Support for reputable initiatives and standards for alternative civilian harm counts

    Training in disciplines related to civilian harm reporting

    "While there were outstanding examples of US media reporting of civilian harm during the war against ISIS, there were also significant failings," notes Airwars director Chris Woods. "This new study provides insights from reporters themselves about why such failings occur - and offers practical recommendations for editors on how to improve future coverage."

    The News In Brief study was funded by the Reva and David Logan Foundation in the US, and the J. Leon Philanthropy Council in the UK.

    Read the full report on US media reporting of civilian harm in the war against ISIS