Is the media fair in its reporting on Ukraine?
As the Ukraine war drags on journalists are looking for new angles, and so we have reached the point of introspection. Appearing on the Tel Aviv-based international channel I24, I was asked whether journalists have an obligation to be more impartial.
It is something I’d often pondered when I was involved in AP coverage of conflicts, and I often found myself arguing for more analysis and dot-connecting. I argued here that there is a difference between fairness and impartiality — as, for example, impartiality toward mass murder would be inhuman. Proponents of the Anglo-American school often deride European reporters for excessive personal perspective, but perhaps the opposite extreme is also not quite right (and what’s worse, often both feigned and unbecomingly self-righteous).
“One of the challenges (in) journalism is to not just say ‘one side says this and the other says that’ — because one side might be lying, or lying more, which (occurs) more often,” I said. “So I think putting things in context, as opposed to what’s being called bothsidesism, is important in complex events.”
Perhaps a case in point (which was discussed on the show) might be Russia (the undisputed aggressor in this conflict) somehow blaming Ukraine for the disruption of shipments of its own grain (causing a crisis in Africa and elsewhere) when in fact the Russian navy is blockading Ukraine’s ports.
I suggested that when the situation is bewildering, access limited and propaganda deafening, one might consider who benefits. In this case, Russia has an evident interest in creating a global grain crisis in order to compel African and other countries to sound the alarms. That in turn might embolden those around the world (like Henry Kissinger) who in the name of realpolitik would like to see Ukraine concede a little; perhaps a little territory in the Donbas might enable Russia to stand down with a victory narrative of sorts.
It could also be argued that the presence of so obvious a bogeyman as Russia’s Vladimir Putin — with his diabolical toolbox of poisonings, sham trials, election interference and other monkey business — causes the media to paint too rosy a narrative of a heroic and scrappy Ukraine. Ukraine is far from a perfect democracy: it suffers decades-long corruption and excessive oligarch power, political arrests, some reliance on far-right extremists and more. Perhaps such shortcomings have been underplayed because Russia, with its brutal police state and naked imperialist ambition, is so vastly more horrible.
Is that defensible? Some might argue that life is just too short, all things in it are relative, and imperfections are not equal. The latter is especially true, and it is officially called false equivalence: everybody lies, but not everybody lies with equal frequency, relevance or vehemence (if uncertain, consult Politifact).
We were asked whether the media was to blame for somehow prolonging the war by not covering it these days as much as in the recent past. This question, of course, implies the media is duty-bound to hasten the war’s end — which sounds reasonable but might actually offend the more purist American pencils.
All of the above touches on news judgment — the holy grail of journalism. There is often tension between what reporters think is important and what the market finds interesting, and ignoring the demand side can seem suicidal for an industry already on the brink. That’s why you get huge headlines, salacious scandals and clickbait photos.
Should the media report more about Ukraine? I quibble with the one-story paradigm that AP also fell into in recent decades, flooding the zone with content about the single top story (when a certain threshold is crossed — say, the 2011 tsunami and nuclear disaster in Japan). As a news consumer I tend to run away from the “one” story myself. But certainly the pendulum can swing too much in the other direction.
“International media is part of a business that is very distressed right now,” I replied. “They don’t have foreign correspondents everywhere; they cannot cover every story. It has to be interesting. The news is interesting to people when it is new. This is why we have waning interest in (what) has become a war of attrition. Even though on the ground you have new tragedies every day, from a distance the story looks the same.”
Ukraine may be lucky to be getting the attention that it has received. There are plenty of conflicts — say, in the Tigray region of Ethiopia — that for a variety of reasons get hardly any coverage at all. There are plenty of places — for example Armenia, still chafing at its disastrous and under-reported war with Azerbaijan in 2020 — where there are generally no foreign correspondents at all.
Who appoints these journalists to decide which facts matter and to explain what they mean? I have no answer other than the free market. That puts a lot of faith in the wisdom of a crowd that can be fickle and ignorant, but it is better than governments handing out licenses or guilds preserving some privileged caste.
Journalism may be a business, a calling and a public service. But an exact science it is not. It is also not a vast conspiracy.