Alternatives to Traditional News Coverage in Ukraine

Salon.com is an online news site that was launched by David Talbot in 1995. The site is different from traditional news organizations because it focuses on real international issues but with a more conversational framework and style of writing. Additionally, writers have more freedom to structure their pieces in untraditional news ways, including embedding opinion, sarcasm and “tabloid-esque” sensationalism. In a February 2015 article from Salon, the writer, Stephan Richter, explored a number of interesting comparisons between Ukraine and Iraq in his piece “Ukraine is the New Iraq: Why History is Repeating Itself in Eastern Europe”. In it, Richter brought forward the lessons that he felt the United States should have learned from its engagement with Iraq back in 2003, including the government’s hastiness to go to war and the media’s mindless encouragement to do so. But in reality, Richter points out how the United States is repeating history as they move forward interacting with Ukraine by “only providing defensive weapons to Kiev”. He pulls together eight boldly highlighted considerations for the United States government to keep in mind as they move forward.

Unlike many traditional news organizations in their coverage, Salon has no qualms about sounding or actually being partial in their reporting. The author is openly critical about the work of the United States and goes to call Washington officials “warmongering”, “trigger-happy” and “mindless drumbeating”. He makes it clear that officials are falling short of their responsibilities in thoroughly thinking through these war processes before they engage. Richter’s eight boldly highlighted considerations are not reporting on news events like many news media outlets do; instead, his piece takes a thinking forward mentality and provides the long-term thoughts of what is happening today. His numbered points are as followed:

1. Ukraine: More Complicated than Washington Makes it Sound

2. Don’t be Monomaniacal

3. Familiar Drummers to War

4. What is the Strategy on Ukraine

5. Tell the Truth

6. Strategic Patience: Obama and Merkel as Allies

7. Economic Realism to the Forefront

8. Is Germany Really Appeasing Putin?

Additionally, the author of the piece is unique in how he frames the article with easy to read text and is in a user friendly layout. Readers can complete the piece and feel that they have actually learned something, are now more informed and have more to think about than when they started reading.

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Social Media and the Impact on Reporters

Social media has played an integral role in the way in which reporters cover issues in Ukraine, specifically the revolutionary protests that have taken place. Now, not only must reporters physically attend different rallies and demonstrations, but they must also have their own personal social media presence in order to monitor the activities of the Ukrainians online. According to the Washington Post, the usage of social media sites has been most crucial for mobilization with first time protesters in Ukraine; the posts motivate them to be part of the public demonstrations and those that are interested immediately know where the events will be taking place. Additionally, social media has also had a way of determining the content that protests will focus on, or what hashtags or phrases will show up on banners and other forms of signage. The term is called “Internet-to-the-streets” and it is having a lasting impact on the direction of protests in Ukraine. Nowadays, the sites become the first place that reporters turn to during a crisis or when they are looking to understand more about a situation at hand.

The graph indicates how protestors got information about protests

As the graph indicates, 49% of Ukrainian protesters learned about the protests from internet sites like Facebook, 35% from Vkontakte (a Facebook-like social media site that is popular among Russian speakers), and 51% from Internet news sites, such as Spilno TV and Hromadianske TV. According to the experts, Vkontakte is home to huge amounts of false information, many examples include fake photos. For instance, in one case on Vkontakte, a site had been identified as a residential area in the town of Slovyansk that had been bombed by the Ukrainian army when in reality, it turned out to be an image of a train crash in Quebec. Sometimes the material that is presented on these social media sites is strictly governmental propaganda used to further a particular agenda. In this regard, authorities can try to counteract some of the work of the public. But it is ultimately journalists responsibilities to decipher the information at hand and report accurately.

Hidden Pressures for Journalists

In 1977, Carl Bernstein exposed some of the 400 American journalists who had also worked as CIA operatives in his piece “The CIA and the Media”

Journalists’ jobs are to serve as the fifth estate or a watchdog of sorts to monitor the operations of governmental authorities. But what happens when the same officials that you are supposed to be monitoring ask you as a journalist to do some of their work for them? According to Carl Bernstein in 1977, the co-winner of the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, more than 400 American journalists had secretly carried out assignments for the Central Intelligence Agency over the course of the last twenty‑five years, as listed in documents housed at the CIA headquarters. In Bernstein’s piece CIA and the Media, written in a 1977 issue of Rolling Stone, 

“…Journalists provided a full range of clandestine services — from simple intelligence gathering to serving as go-betweens with spies in Communist countries. Reporters shared their notebooks with the CIA. Editors shared their staffs…in many instances, CIA documents show, journalists were engaged to perform tasks for the CIA with the consent of the managements America’s leading news organizations.”

This particular finding brought to light at least one of the hidden pressures that journalists face: journalistic relationships with the government. Especially during the ’50s, the United States was facing issues with what was deemed to be national security. In cases where the government calls upon individuals to be patriots for their country and journalists are in a position to assist, is that the time to back down and refuse? To what extent, if any, should journalists cooperate with governmental entities such as the CIA and FBI? Where is the line between investigating for the public good and being a puppet for these entities? Are cooperative behaviors between the groups ethically acceptable? These are some of the questions that journalists must ask themselves when choosing whether or not to establish relationships with officials in enforcement.

Press Freedoms in the United States

Freedom of the Press Worldwide (2014)

According to the site Freedom House, the United States has a press status of “free” indicating that this nation values the work of journalists and affords them with certain protections. For instance, the First Amendment and the United States Constitution work in favor of journalists by giving them legal protection to do their job under the umbrella of freedom of speech and press freedom. In this country, reporters, journalists and other members of the press have the ability to report on any issue that they see fit without fear of being detained, injured or killed by the ruling authorities. Although this is the case, there are still avenues where the press has not been allowed the highest level of freedom in comparison to other parts of the world, particularly parts of western Europe. In the Reporters Without Borders 2014 World Press Freedom Index the United States is ranked at the 46th position indicating that it fell 13 places in comparison with 2013. This decline in placement can be attributed to the 2013 national security policies that led to setbacks for the United States. According to Freedom House, “press freedom suffered from heightened restrictions on reporters’ access to officials from the Obama administration and to government information, particularly concerning national security; government eavesdropping on journalists and news outlets; and continued efforts to compel journalists to reveal the sources of leaked information.”

One big point of contention is the level of protection for journalists’ sources; one of the main responsibilities of a journalist is to protect their sources no matter what consequences or repercussions may come their way. This is fairly easy to do when the story at hand is trivial and does not hold many stakes. The issue is when national security comes into play and there are questions about how much information is too much information or who might be harmed because of the spread of certain details. At times, these uncertainties have led American authorities to be more concerned about how much power journalists have. There have been cases where journalists have written controversial, critical and highly sensitive stories about the government and as a result, authorities have held journalists in contempt if they choose to not give up their sources. In essence, this make reporting on national security issues a crime. For example, James Risen is a journalist that wrote a story seven years ago in The New York Times that included details from a confidential source about “a botched operation in Iran that was intended to disrupt that country’s nuclear program” (The New York Times)After catching hold of this story, the Justice Department was trying to force Risen to testify at the trial of Jeffrey Sterling, a former C.I.A. officer charged with providing Risen with the details. In December of 2014, a United States court decided that Risen would not be forced to name his sources, indicating a victory for journalists around the world.

There is hope that the government would ultimately pass a shield law that would allow journalists to protect their sources at the federal level, but that has not yet been established.

The First Amendment

Wikileaks Impact on Ukraine

In 2011, a confidential cable from the Moscow Embassy was leaked to Wikileaks detailing how back in 2008, William J. Burns, the U.S. Ambassador to Russia, warned the United States and even predicted that massive conflict would emerge between Ukraine and Russia if Ukraine proceeded to pursue membership into NATO. An excerpt from the cable read:

“…NATO enlargement, particularly to Ukraine, remains “an emotional and neuralgic” issue for Russia, but strategic policy considerations also underlie strong opposition to NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia. In Ukraine, these include fears that the issue could potentially split the country in two, leading to violence or even, some claim, civil war, which would force Russia to decide whether to intervene. Additionally, the GOR and experts continue to claim that Ukrainian NATO membership would have a major impact on Russia’s defense industry, Russian-Ukrainian family connections, and bilateral relations generally…” 

Ambassador Burns went on to detail how Joint relations between the two countries had already been unstable and allowing Ukraine to be admitted into NATO would further create a substantial international rift:

“…Ukraine’s ‘likely integration into NATO would seriously complicate the many-sided Russian-Ukrainian relations,’ and that Russia would ‘have to take appropriate measures.’ The spokesman added that ‘one has the impression that the present Ukrainian leadership regards rapprochement with NATO largely as an alternative to good-neighborly ties with the Russian Federation…'”

Ultimately, Ambassador Burns’ predictions came true as we now currently see Russia taking a more aggressive stance against Ukraine and as a result, there have been community wide frustrations in Ukraine that have turned into unruly, violent protests against Russia. 

Although the actual release of this cable did not create the uproar or political unrest within Russia or Ukraine, at the moment that the cable was leaked, the world became aware that there could have been a potential to avoid further escalating the conflict between the two nations. For many around the world, the massive eruption of built-up tension turned violent conflict between Russia and Ukraine surprised many as their relations had never exploded in such a dynamic way. But according to this leaked cable, there were individuals who were anticipating the fallout. 

Citizen Journalism in Ukraine

Non-state approved journalism is already risky in Ukraine; although the written law says that journalists are protected by the state and have the right to work uninhibited, time after time, we see stories about Ukrainian journalists who are harassed, detained and hurt for writing what may be viewed as going against the official state. With this information as context, it is not surprising to find that there is a rarity of public citizen journalists in the country of Ukraine. Even though there is a common sentiment of frustration with Ukrainian officials among the Ukrainian public, people are scared to use the pen to speak out. Many have participated in publicly organized protests against the state, but very few are brave enough to take more of an individual step to make a change.

In my research, I did come across one individual who has not managed to let fear inhibit his ability to share what is going on in Ukraine with the rest of the world. This software engineer turned citizen journalist’s name is Rodion Rozhkovsky and he is one of the co-founders of LiveUAMap which describes itself as a “nonprofit, volunteer-run project of civic journalism”.

The website operates in real-time as it aggregates and charts data from Twitter including the locations of deaths, bombings, fires, arrests, and photographs from Ukraine and puts it in a live-map form for others to see. By doing this, the benefits are two-fold. One, other Ukrainian citizens are aware of the events dealing with conflict that are taking place in their country and two, citizen journalists have a platform to contribute to. In essence, the website allows citizen journalists to work together to make an impact. As mentioned before, Rodion Rozhkovsky is a software engineer at heart, but he was able to turn his passion for technology and analytics into citizen journalism. 

Restrepo Response

American soldier in the “Valley of Death” (New York Times)

Restrepo (2010) was a documentary by photographer Tim Hetherington and journalist Sebastian Junger detailing the realities of war, specifically the experiences of soldiers in the Second Platoon, Battle Company, 173rd Airborne Brigade that were fighting in Afghanistan. The documentary shed light on some of the most dangerous, darkest and deadliest missions that took place in the mountainous region of Korengal, better known to the American soldiers as the Valley of Death. For me, Restrepo opened my eyes to war in a way that was more realistic than just history books and Google searches; daily firefights were loud, ambushes were scary, the idea of mass weaponry was more than just a scene from Call of Duty and death was a very real outcome. Soldiers had actual names and families and to see the conditions that some of them died in was personally heartbreaking for me: dirty, wet trenches in the middle of the other side of nowhere. Even more surprising than their deaths was the soldiers’ responses, or lack thereof. The platoons had at most a few hours to “mourn” the loss of their captain, fellow comrade or even best friend before they had to continue on with their regularly scheduled duties, fighting harder and stronger than ever to avenge their deaths.

Although the documentary made me better understand the work that American soldiers do and make me respect them even more for it, the storyline appeared very one sided and partial. The film focused on the daily lives of the American men at war; their ups and downs were highlighted. But the American soldiers were the faces of the “good guys”, brave warriors and patriotic heroes fighting for their country in the midst of tragedy and danger. The New York Times and Vanity Fair articles about Restrepo painted the same pictures literally and figuratively. Readers really did not get a look into the lives of the opposition, but they were overwhelmed with valiant imagery of American soldiers. The “bad guys” were imageless men hiding in the mountains of Korengal. They had no story besides their “terrorist” roots that were echoed throughout the film. Even though there were scenes that showed interactions with the town’s local elders, the primary storyline did not provide a well-rounded image of war.

A scene from Restrepo where soldiers are preparing to fight the opposition (New York Times)

Overall, it is difficult to fairly and impartially convey the reality of conflict, especially if you are a journalist that has been embedded in the military. As we have learned in class, being embedded can make a person feel more favorably and emotionally attached to the individuals that are protecting them, potentially distorting the narrative. But in my opinion, the reality of conflict was most effectively conveyed through the most heartbreaking scenes of the film. For instance, when Officer Rouble was killed in the firefight, the soldiers began to cry and viewers could see parts of his dead corpse lying on the ground; for me, that was where the light switch turned on and it all made sense. Although Restrepo was not impartial in its presentation of sides, I do believe that it has made the correct initial step to opening the eyes of viewers so that they better understand war for what it truly is. 

Warning: Graphic imagery and explicit language

Reporting on Death in the Media

Deceased American soldiers head back home to their families (Family Security Matters)

Media coverage of death is very tricky. On one hand, journalists do have a responsibility to present the truth and the whole truth at that, but to what extent does sensitivity and self-censorship come into play? 

For instance, in class, we discussed the instance where an NPR reporter embedded in the military captured audio of an American soldier dying in combat; the reporter aired the footage, talked about the soldier’s backstory and she neglected to see if the soldier’s family was aware of his death before doing so. The reporter received a plethora of backlash from the public for her actions; she was criticized for not notifying the family beforehand as well as for airing the story in its entirety. But others viewed her report as merely showcasing the everyday occurrences of war. 

Regarding this case in particular, I do agree that the NPR reporter should have attempted to notify the family of the dead soldier, solely as a courtesy to them and his legacy. But I do not agree that the reporter should have foregone the story all together; by not reporting on stories of death whether about soldiers, children, elderly people or otherwise, it would seem that that is doing more of a disservice to the deceased. They deserve for their legacies to be honored by having their stories told.

In my opinion, telling the truth is the number one priority that journalists should have and to me, this would include the tales of death, even if they are gruesome. Particularly if a journalist is embedded with the military and they come across death, I do think it is the journalist’s job to include that as an event in the report. Journalists are supposed to act as liaisons between the public and government officials, so by neglecting parts of a story, the audiences or readers back home cannot fully picture what happened, nor can they understand the implications. 

In the event that a news story contains a death scene–whether graphic or not–and it is going to be shown on air or online, I do believe that the news organization presenting the story should have some sort of disclaimer beforehand. Regarding on air content, maybe the news reporter states an audible warning. If the image is is online, maybe the screen goes black and displays the words “Graphic image: Click to continue viewing”. By doing this, viewers or readers that are interested in seeing the material have access to it, but those that are not interested do not have to be taken off guard with the image. 

Regarding executions, I do not believe that the public needs to be shown these images or videos. To me they provide more of a sensationalistic angle than an informative one. Executions can be explained and detailed through proper reporting techniques and raw footage does not need to be displayed across major networks for people to watch. 

There becomes a very slippery slope when journalists begin to allow others to control what material they can and cannot report on which is why I lean more toward free and open media coverage. 

Who’s Telling the Truth if Everyone Lies?

Everyone lies, well, at least that’s the case with some of the media in Ukraine nowadays. Conscious manipulation, political pressures and improper formalized training for journalists are just a few of the reasons for why Ukraine’s mediascape is constantly under fire according to the European Journalism Centre. The European Journalism Centre conducted an analysis of the Ukrainian media landscape and found that although media and journalism in Ukraine has shifted away from utilizing media as a means of propaganda–stemming from the Soviet Union days–the remnants of media control still live on, especially in times of conflict. 

International conflict, political tensions, large scale protests and corruption in the country have led to Ukrainian military and other officials stepping in and taking control of situations that may seemingly be sparking out of control; yet after hours of doing research, I found no indication that Ukraine allowed journalists to be embedded into the military. The Journal of Power Institutions in Post-Soviet Societies discusses how a decree issued in July 2014 by the insurgents of the People’s Republic of Donetsk prohibited “journalists, cameramen and photo-reporters” from “being present in combat zones and near military installations” during military armed operations. Doing so restricted journalists’ access to military operations allowing for untrue and misconstrued assumptions of the Ukrainian conflict at hand. Additionally, the piece discussed how reporters’ arrests and disappearances began to climb exponentially during spring and summer of 2014–during the time of the massive protests when the military began to get involved. 

Although embedding journalists in the military does not necessarily guarantee full disclosure of the things going on in Ukraine, if done correctly, that progressively building media-military relationship could shed light on the underlying causes of conflict facing the country.

Violations of Journalists’ Rights in Ukraine (Institute of Mass Information)

As discussed in a number of my other blog posts, Ukraine does not create an environment conducive to journalists’ thoughts, investigations or safety. Although the country has official rules set in place to allow journalists to have freedom in how they report, officials informally control much of the content that is circulated in the media. Censorship, which was once prevalent in Ukraine before the Soviet Union collapsed, is no longer the way in which media goes about being controlled; officials take a different approach either by manipulating, coercing or physically harming media personnel into conveying the messages that they desire.

The problem right now is lack of trust. The Ukrainian people’s lack of trust in their traditional media sources has resulted in many individuals turning more toward social networking, particularly the blogosphere, as a viable option for true, honest and reliable news information. According to the popular Russian search engine, Yandex, Ukraine has one of the highest rates of social networking in the world.

The future of journalism for Ukraine seems to lie in the newer forms of media like social networks and blogs. These realms have provided a relatively solid platform for young, ambitious individuals to take a stand and speak out against the injustices toward journalists or the citizens of Ukraine.

Natural Disasters and a Single Story

Flooding in Ukraine leads residents to evacuate by unconventional means (Reuters)

Back in 2008, 22 people were killed in western Ukraine after 5 days of non-stop rain led to an overflow of high water levels along the Prut and Dnestr Rivers. At least 5 of the victims were children, 2 of which had been struck by lightning, according to Ukrainian authorities and the Emergency Situations Ministry. The flooding, which ultimately displaced around 20,000 individuals and impacted 40,000 homes, was estimated to cost around $800 million; but only a fraction of that cost–$57 million–could be covered by Ukraine’s special disaster fund said Deputy Prime Minister Olexandr Turchynov. Three thousand police officers and troops were called into the region to assist with the natural disaster by packing dams with sand bags to block the waters. 

After reading the Reuters piece and the NBC News piece on this flooding story, neither of the articles seemed to portray Ukraine in negative single story framework. Ukraine was presented as a country that had experienced a terrible natural disaster, but they were quickly making steps to move forward and progress. Although there were limited funds available to assist, the Ukrainian officials were still actively working to develop a plan in order to help those that were affected by the flood. Nothing quite stood out about the article, besides that the flood was one of the worst in the last 100 years. To me personally, this sends the message that these media outlets did not fall into the single story narrative. 
After reflecting, I’m having somewhat of a difficult time understanding what a potential single story could be in a case like this. Does it have to be negative? Can it be positive? Must it include quotes from numerous sources as to provide new contexts? These are all questions that I still have to learn a little more about in order to fully understand the entire notion of a single story.