Massacres vs Regrettable Accidents
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avgust 20, 2008

















Massacres vs. Regrettable Accidents:
Double-Standard for Coverage of Civilian Deaths in Yugoslavia

May 7, 1999

Forty-seven civilians die when the bus they're riding on is hit by a missile and incinerated. Fifty-eight people are murdered in an attack on their village. The two killings, occurring in the same region, comparable in scale, must be equally worthy of investigation and condemnation, right? Not at the New York Times.

"Survivor Tells of Massacre at Kosovo Village," said a May 3, 1999 New York Times front-page headline. Anthony DePalma's lengthy story gave a dramatic account of the killing of 58 Kosovar Albanians at Bela Crkva on March 25 (over a month past at the time of the front-page story), focusing heavily on the lingering anguish of the survivors.

In the same day's Times, on page A14, is a brief story headlined "NATO Admits Missile Hit Bus but Says Bridge Was a Legitimate Target." This story by Philip Shenon reports NATO's admission that on May 1, a NATO missile hit a bus in Luzane, killing 47 Yugoslavian civilians. Shenon gives a fairly dry, straightforward account of NATO's statements that the deaths were accidental and regrettable, but understandable because, as a NATO spokesman says, the bridge the bus was on was "a legitimate military target."

The assertion that roads and bridges regularly traveled by civilians are military targets was not questioned. Nor were the grieving families of the bus passengers interviewed.

Outrage, sympathy and front-page focus for the 58 people killed a month ago by Serb forces. Clinical regret and a minimizing page A14 for the 47 people killed two days ago by NATO forces. The two Times stories are an extreme though hardly unique example of the media's tendency to focus justifiable outrage on Serb atrocities, while presenting NATO forces as principled strategists who occasionally make mistakes.

How many mistakes? A Nexus search of the New York Times from March 23 to May 3 found that, adding up the casualties reported in various articles, the Times has reported incidents in which a total of at least 231 Yugoslavian civilians have been killed by NATO since the start of the bombing. (While Western journalists have examined the sites of most of these attacks, the source for casualty numbers is generally the Yugoslavian government; Yugoslavia claims NATO is responsible for 500 civilian deaths overall.)

Yet estimates of total civilian casualties caused by NATO in Yugoslavia since the start of the bombing campaign have been conspicuously absent from mainstream coverage, even considering the difficulty of gathering data during a war. NATO's persistent focus on the "accidental" nature of the deaths is rarely questioned by the press; the strongest criticism usually comes in discussions of the damage such "accidents" do to NATO's PR image.

Little effort is being made by the media to hold NATO accountable for deaths that result from attacks on targets that are mainly or entirely civilian, which would seem to be forbidden as targets by international law. (One exception is Is U.S. Committing War Crimes From on High, an op-ed in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, 5/3/99).

Nor is there much concern expressed that "intensifying the air campaign" by striking military targets in urban areas will inevitably lead to the deaths of innocent people--indeed, media pundits have frequently urged the government to dismiss such concerns.