President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv during the Russo-Ukrainian War
Credit: The Presidential Office of Ukraine (Creative Commons licence) via Wikimedia

Objectivity is a key tenet of journalistic ethics, but it does not always mean neutrality. Sometimes objectivity is not even desirable. But particularly true when reporting on conflicts, it can be hard to get information from the worst affected areas and where the media itself risks being weaponised.

At an online seminar organised by fjum, the forum for journalism and media based in Vienna, journalists from Ukraine, Russia and Western Europe discussed the lessons for international media based on the first three months of conflict.

They are relevant not only for this and future conflicts, but also for reporting on the aftermath. Mirjana Tomić, who moderated the discussion for fjum, noted that from her experience of the Yugoslav Wars, most international media depart conflict areas entirely.

"The post-war period is when things get very difficult for the population, and most [international] media is no longer there," she said.

Working with eyewitness accounts

Tim Judah has spent three decades covering events in the Balkans, namely working as a special correspondent for The Economist. Having spent several months reporting from Ukraine, he said that one big reporting challenge for international media is the difficulty to access fully occupied areas or those where fighting is ongoing, such as Donetsk and Mariupol.

While paying tribute to the exceptions of a small number of local journalists and photographers, particularly the Associated Press team who documented atrocities in Mariupol until forced to leave in mid-March, Judah said it was physically impossible for most media to access these areas.

This does not mean that there is a complete information blackout in these areas, but it does mean that accessing and interpreting accounts of what is happening is challenging.

Alexey Kovalev, head of the investigative desk at independent outlet Meduza, left Russia in the early days of the war and is now working from Riga with his team, where they have regularly published collections of eyewitness accounts.

"These are very powerful and valuable testaments, I also realise, having spoken to hundreds of people traumatised by this war, how unreliable these experiences can be. It's not because they want to mislead, but people who have survived several lifetimes’ worth of trauma, their own mind tends to protect them from the worst of it," noted Kovalev.

Trauma can often skew victims' perception of timelines in particular.

Kovalev gave the example of a woman who survived multiple rapes by Russian soldiers, whose house was burned down and whose husband was killed. She thought she had walked for a mile on foot but in reality the journey had been 25 miles, and the ordeal had taken place over a much longer time period than she recalled.

As well as following established guidelines for interviewing survivors of trauma (this guide from the Dart Center is a good primer), this means that journalists should be aware of how trauma can affect the memory and give context to witness testimonies - without casting doubt on their experiences.

Choose 'experts' wisely

Dr Laura Pérez Rastrilla from Complutense University, Madrid, noted that many Spanish media commentators were not experts on the Ukrainian language, culture or society. In many cases, 'experts' mispronounce city names. She questioned whether news audiences have been getting the most reliable information.

Finding Ukrainian reporters both on the ground and working internationally has been one of the main achievements of the German media, commented Dr Anna Litvinenko, a Berlin-based Russian academic and lecturer who has been monitoring German media coverage for almost a decade.

However, she noted that there had been some backlash to decisions to work with Russian correspondents, in particular Marina Ovsyannikova, the former journalist for Russian state TV who was hired by German daily Die Welt after she held up an anti-war placard on live television. There were protests against this from those who believe she may still be co-operating with Russia or that she has been let off the hook too easily after years of working for state propaganda.

Know your own audience

While mainstream media has generally taken a shared stance against the Russian aggression, it is important to find out what other information your audience might be consuming. That will help to identify which specific claims need fact-checking and verifying.

Litvinenko spoke about social divides between east and west Germany, with opinion polls showing that eastern residents are more likely to be against sanctions on Russia and weapons exports, both for historical and economic reasons.

A more recent phenomenon is the Querdenker movement; literally translated as 'lateral thinkers', the group started in protest against the country's covid-19 restrictions.

"These networks, specifically on Telegram but other social networks were infused by Russian propaganda and conspiracy theories during the whole year. It's not so visible in normal war coverage [by mainstream media], but in these more underground social channels you have a lot of conspiracy theories and Russia-backed information," she said.

Taking a stance should not mean dropping standards

Journalists and media researchers from Spain, France, the UK, Germany and Denmark all said that in media had taken a clear stance aligned closely with Ukraine. The Spanish state TV channel, RTVE, went as far as to put the Ukrainian flag next to its own logo for a few days after the outbreak of war.

That is not to say this solidarity is consistent across Europe. In Hungary, for example, where recently re-elected Prime Minister Viktor Orbán remains one of Putin's last allies in the region, the largely state-controlled or state-aligned media has repeated some Russian propaganda claims and been far less openly supportive of the Ukrainian leadership.

In western Europe, the strong support for Ukraine has crossed usual divides in the media, but combined with a lack of subject matter experts, it has also led to some confusing or misleading journalism, Pérez Rastrilla warned.

"Everything is based on expectations, wishes and highly politicised positions that can clash with reality. The result of this behaviour is that following mass media is not very useful in understanding what is happening and what will happen."

As an example, she cited early reports in Spanish media that presented the Russian public as broadly opposed to the war and suggested high-ranking officials were likely to plot a coup against President Putin - despite official opinion polls and analyses by most expert commentators warning that the situation was more complex.

She also highlighted the difficulty in verifying data and said that while this in itself was understandable, international media need to be more rigorous about making clear to the public when data had not been verified. It must also correct errors when they become known afterwards.

Danish journalist Leif Lonsmann said there had been similar problems in Nordic media, including scenes from different events purporting to be from Ukraine in an effort to mislead audiences on social media.

And when Ukraine's army released images of Russian prisoners of war calling their parents, Lonsmann says journalists "didn’t question that it’s a severe breach of international law on warfare" to share images of prisoners of war.

Lonsmann said that just as army generals conduct thorough reviews after battles of lessons learned in order to avoid repeating them, journalists should take time to evaluate what they had got right and wrong.

Report on Ukrainian society beyond conflict

For Ukrainian journalist Nataliya Gumenyuk, the biggest mistakes made by international media came during the years before the war, either through limited or misinformed reporting on Ukrainian issues.

She also said that from her perspective, the "most untold story" from the war was the continuation of many elements of society alongside the conflict.

It is enough to look at figures from border crossings which have shown that in recent weeks, more people have returned to Ukraine than have left the country as the situation returns to fragile stability, particularly in Kyiv.

"There is still a functioning parliament and civil society, with political diversity. It is still an extremely functioning society even during war and this is the most untold and covered story," said Gumenyuk.

She said that these forgotten perspectives were crucial to Ukrainians who do not want to be portrayed only as victims and who want solidarity rather than compassion.

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