There are some predictable truths of war.
There is that old cliché: the first casualty of war is the truth.
Another is that, as conflict deepens and worsens, war reporting becomes less accurate and less specific. The fog of battle mists up the media’s lens. Only the biggest, most shocking massacres make the headlines. Along the way, the recording of the injured drops off.
The charity I head up, Action on Armed Violence, monitors the world’s English language media for reports on explosive violence. Between 2011 and 2018, we recorded over 22,000 explosive incidents globally. These harmed almost 310,000 people, three quarters of them civilians. Of these, 82,473 were reported killed and 149,472 injured.
In other words, for each civilian killed by explosive violence, just under two were reported injured.
We know, though, that explosive weapons - with their wide area impact and devastating force – have an injury rate far greater than this media reporting might suggest. The BBC, for instance, recorded that the suicide bomber that targeted the Manchester Arena in 2017 not only killed 22 people but hurt ‘over 800’ more. For each person murdered on that terrible night, 36 were injured.
Elsewhere, though, such granular reporting is absent. Since 2011, English language media has reported 33,135 civilians killed by explosive violence in Syria. But just 34,128 civilians were reported injured over the same period. It would be wrong to conclude that the ratio of civilians killed to civilians wounded in Syria by explosive weapons is roughly 1:1.
Instead, it is a paucity of journalists, the targeting of the media, conflict reporting fatigue, other news priorities, and the repetition of the same terrible news that have muted the reporting of the injured. In May, English-language media captured 175 incidents in Syria that caused civilian casualties; 80% of these failed to mention a single injury. It’s a failure to report on the wounded from explosive violence that has worsened over time. Civilian deaths in Syria from explosive violence made up 46% of total reported civilian casualties in 2012. By 2018 that figure had risen to 57%.
It’s not just Syria. In 2015, the first year of the conflict in Yemen saw civilian deaths account for 37% of total civilian casualties reported in Yemen. By 2017, the deaths made up 60% of the total.
Simply put, war blunts reporting.
In places where civilian casualties do not occur on a daily basis and at high levels, injuries are more likely to make the news. In India, for example, 322 civilian casualties from explosive violence were recorded in 2018, but 80% of these were injuries. There, explosive violence is not so persistent as to make civilian injuries un-newsworthy. Similarly, 72 explosive incidents have been witnessed in the EU since 2011; 82% of those harmed were reported injured.
One fundamental challenge is that of journalistic access. Where access for journalists is more difficult, there is less reporting of injuries, and less granularity in reporting in general. In Pakistan’s Waziristan regions, for example, where access for English-speaking journalists and western news outlets is difficult, far higher levels of deaths, compared to injuries, are reported among civilian casualties; in the last 8 years civilian deaths accounted for about 50% of all civilian casualties there. In contrast, areas with greater journalistic access saw a far greater percentage of injuries reported. In Karachi, civilian death accounted for 15% of total civilian casualties. In Islamabad, civilian deaths stood at 18% of all reported civilian harm.
Other variables occur. When a state was behind the violence, injuries reported accounted for less than half of total civilian casualties. When a non-state perpetrator, though, was behind the explosive violence, injuries were far more likely to be recorded - accounting for 71% of the total civilian casualties.
Similar discrepancies are seen when the death-to-injury ratio is examined in relation to weapon launch method. When Improvised Explosive Devices (IED) incidents are recorded, civilian injuries account for more than 7 in 10 (or 72%) of civilian casualties. With airstrikes, though, civilian injuries drop to just 4 in 10 (of 43%) of civilian casualties recorded.
There are, then, many factors that impact the chances of injuries being recorded alongside deaths following an explosive weapon incident. These range from the type of weapon used, the geographical location, the intensity of a conflict, the capacity of English-language journalists to operate in the area, the perpetrator of the attack (and reporting bias), the type of victims and the dominance of other news on any given day.
Why should this matter? Because without a proper recording of the injured in conflict, Britain cannot make foreign aid policy decisions based on unmet need. Without focusing on the injured from air-strikes, there is a danger that those civilians harmed from bombing runs carried out by British pilots will not be considered in ‘collateral damage’ estimates. And – over time – if the true impact of conflict is reduced because of patchy reporting, war itself could lose its sting, leading politicians to prefer war-war over jaw-jaw.
What is clear is that explosive violence devastates lives and rips apart families – a harm that extends far beyond those who are killed. Those injured will often have to live with life-changing trauma. And this is a hard truth that should not be overlooked in conflict reporting.
Research by Jennifer Dathan
A longer version of this article can be found at www.aoav.org.uk