Overblown coverage: Why more care is needed in conflict and terrorism reporting

Jerónimo Mohar Volkow and Benoît Gomis on how skewed coverage of conflict and terrorism can be used politically — and how to think more critically when it comes to understanding violence. 

Police officers work at a crime scene after an armed group of men driving past on motorcycles shot at the Attorney General's Office, according to local media, in Cancun, Mexico. January 17, 2017. REUTERS/Victor Ruiz Garcia

As the debate over the geopolitical impacts of fake news rages on, it is worth taking note of a distinct phenomenon that — albeit less malicious — is similarly damaging: the reporting of violent incidents or conflicts that magnifies or oversimplifies said events. Given the particular weight of violence in political discourse, a faulty or biased analysis can easily be manipulated by third parties.

Last month, London’s International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) published its annual Armed Conflict Survey. As the title suggests, its intent is to map and assess all major armed conflicts across the world. In both the press release to mark the publication of the survey and its introduction, IISS pointed out that a “surprising” finding was that Mexico had the second most lethal conflict in the world after Syria.

That sound bite rapidly took the Internet and news circuit by storm. U.S. President Donald Trump was quick to retweet the Drudge Report — a politically conservative news aggregation website with more than 1.2 million Twitter followers — proclaiming: “MEXICO 2ND DEADLIEST COUNTRY”. On June 22, Trump tweeted about the survey again: 

When numbers tell only part of the story

At first glance, the idea that an OECD country like Mexico could be runner-up to a country undergoing a full-blown civil war — a conflict that has pulled in major world powers like the U.S. and Russia — certainly merits special media attention. However, the methodology and criteria used by IISS to reach this widely-shared conclusion are questionable, and the headlines it generated are highly misleading in four main ways.

First, the study uses fatality figures to show the severity of each conflict — in other words, how many people have died in a conflict over the past year. However, the use of such figures as the main comparison metric between countries is restrictive. The economic environments, risk level and overall quality of life of Mexico and Syria are not comparable. For instance, the economies of the two countries differ greatly.  According to FDI Intelligence, a division of the Financial Times Ltd which focuses on foreign direct investment (FDI), “in 2010, FDI into Syria reached $1.99bn before decreasing to $1.6bn in 2011. In 2012, inward investment decreased dramatically to $9.9m, before stopping altogether in 2013.” Mexico, on the other hand, received US$26.7 billion in foreign direct investment in 2016 alone, according to the country’s Ministry for the Economy.

Second, using fatality counts ignores the size of countries’ populations. IISS points out that in 2016 the war in Syria resulted in 50,000 fatalities, whereas “Mexico’s battle with criminal cartels” led to 23,000 deaths (Iraq came a close third with 17,000 casualties). However, Mexico is more than six times more populous than Syria; Syria had a fatality rate of 277 fatalities per 100,000 inhabitants in 2016, compared with 18 fatalities per every 100,000 inhabitants in Mexico (and 44 per 100,000 in Iraq).

Third, the Armed Conflict Survey fails to mention that other Latin American countries such as El Salvador, Venezuela, Honduras, Jamaica, Guatemala, Brazil and Colombia have higher homicide rates than Mexico. In fact, Venezuela — where the population is a fourth of the size of Mexico’s — reported more than 28,000 homicides in 2016, a year marked by extreme tensions between civil society and an increasingly authoritarian yet decrepit government. Brazil had more than 52,000 homicides in 2015, the latest year with available nationwide data. While those countries each face unique political situations, they all struggle with organized crime-related violence, and a common structural cause: weak governance and corruption. It is thus unclear why they were not included in the IISS definition of ‘armed conflict,’ broad enough to encompass countries like Pakistan, South Sudan, the Philippines and Southern Thailand.

Fourth, IISS considered all homicides in countries like Mexico as conflict-related in 2016. While there is much uncertainty as to the precise breakdown in Mexico, given the significant issues the country faces when it comes to crime reporting, police investigations and judicial follow-ups, it is simply impossible that not one homicide was related to personal disputes, for example.

To be clear, Mexico has an immense challenge with regard to dealing with organized crime, given serious deficiencies in its rule of law and security institutions. But to state that its conflict — if we are to grant this term — is only outranked by Syria’s is inappropriate and potentially harmful, and distracts from more important — yet less catchy — underlying issues, including weak governance, corruption, organized crime and inequalities.

Just last week, on June 23, a day after Trump’s latest tweet on the topic — which was retweeted more than 43,000 times and liked over 140,000 times — and a month and a half after the initial release of the Armed Conflict Survey, IISS acknowledged in a press statement there was a “methodological flaw” in their “calculation of estimated conflict fatalities that requires revision.”

In a forthcoming revised version, the institute “anticipate[s] this will result in Mexico’s conflict remaining among the ten most lethal in the world, by estimated fatalities attributable to an armed conflict.” IISS thus stands by its description of Mexico’s current security landscape as ‘armed conflict.’ It remains to be seen, however, whether countries in South America facing similar patterns of violence (e.g. Colombia, Venezuela, Brazil) will be included in the new estimate.

The current version points out that the conflict in Mexico accounts for 58.9 percent of all conflict fatalities in Latin America, with another 41 percent occurring in Central America and a mere 0.1 percent in ‘other’ countries in the region. In addition, the institute notes that the “Armed Conflict Database and Survey do not measure homicides on either an absolute or per capita basis” but instead “estimate deaths directly related to conflict” — hence the need to reconsider the fact that all homicides carried out in Mexico were counted as conflict-related.  

Debating these finer points matters when we look at how this information is used. Simplistic and misleading stories on conflicts and violence can indeed readily be exploited by those on the receiving end of the reporting — as was shown by the Trump example. The brashness of the tweets is certainly in line with Trump’s infamous quote about Mexican immigrants to the U.S., and adds further strain to bilateral relations with Mexico, already complicated by the president’s repeated stance that Mexico should pay for a border wall, among other controversial ideas.

The trouble with terrorism coverage

Just as misreporting on armed conflict can lead to popular misperceptions and political overreactions, so does reporting and analysis on terrorism. Over-reporting on terrorism may lead to disproportionate levels of fear among a population, which leads to more reclusive and xenophobic attitudes that can foster further resentment, anger and tension within our societies. As Jimmy Carter’s national security advisor, Zbigniew Brzezinski, once wrote, “Fear obscures reason, intensifies emotions and makes it easier for demagogic politicians to mobilize the public on behalf of the policies they want to pursue.”

Media over-reaction or simplistic, discriminatory analysis on terrorist attacks may also lead to copycat behaviour — by stimulating the fantasies of certain people to carry out similar attacks — or revenge attacks. Islamophobic attacks in fact tripled in France in 2015 following the Charlie Hebdo shootings, with similar trends in the U.K. and the U.S.

The ability to respond to terrorism in a nuanced, balanced and contextual way is slowly becoming accepted as an important part of an effective counterterrorism strategy. Reporting and analysis on armed conflicts would certainly benefit from learning from past — and unfortunately often still current — mistakes made in the coverage of terrorism. In the absence of such a development, popular misconceptions and harmful political reactions will continue unabated.