Part of the cover.

Part of the cover.

Reviews Media reporting of the Ukrainian war. A comparison of ideals and outcome

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2019:1. Vol. XII. pp 75-76
Published on balticworlds.com on mars 26, 2019

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Russia’s annexation of Crimea took many politicians and experts by surprise. The annexation, and the conflict in eastern Ukraine that escalated during the summer of 2014, reached media headlines all over the world. Initially, media reporting was hesitant, and the Russian leadership did what it could to establish confusion about who was behind the military operation on the Crimean Peninsula. Later this Russian operation, and the competing narratives of the conflict in eastern Ukraine, would be heatedly discussed.

The book Ukraina och informationskriget — journalistik mellan ideal och självcensur (in Swedish) offers an impressive empirical contribution to the broader debate on the role of journalism and media in conflicts. The study is the result of a project by media scholars in Sweden, Ukraine, Russia, and Poland. It provides a systematic analysis of the media coverage in these four countries during the earlier parts of the conflict in eastern Ukraine.

The book asks several questions: first, which angles of the conflict are presented in the media; second, which sources are used, and in which ways does disinformation matter for media logic; and third, what is the role of the journalist, and what challenges for journalistic ideals can be identified when covering an armed conflict. Although the book only covers the conflict during the summer of 2014, it includes several insights. In order to put the study into a broader context the book also includes individual chapters about media control and journalism, media and war in authoritarian and democratic states, the Russian news channel RT, and disinformation.

To analytically describe the role played by journalists in different countries during this period, Gunnar Nygren works with two criteria: first, the level of political-military control over media, and second, the journalistic culture in a state. As an example of high level political-military control, he cites the embedded journalists used by the United States government during the Gulf War, while a low level of control was seen during the Vietnam War. Journalistic culture is divided into either a neutral ideal or a subjective, more activist journalistic ideal. Taken together these two variables give us four possible types of state-media relations. The book’s strengths clearly are on the empirical side, and the main goal of the book is not theory development. Although one could certainly criticize the framework for being overly simplistic, it works quite well, not the least given the complex cross-country comparison the authors are undertaking.

Two important factors have limited media freedom in many post-Soviet states: oligarch control and state control. Oligarch control has been predominant in the Ukrainian media landscape, while the state has dominated Russian media, especially under President Vladimir Putin. Besides patriotism, the authors argue that these factors have also been important for Ukrainian and Russian media coverage of the conflict in 2014.

The authors rely on two main methods. The first is quantitative content analysis in which certain representative newspapers and TV-channels from the four countries are selected for a detailed cross-country comparative analysis. This is the book’s strongest section and it definitely contributes to increased knowledge about media coverage of the conflict. The second approach consists of interviews with journalists and gives the reader more detailed information about the differences in journalistic thinking in the four countries.

 

Several Ukrainian journalists describe neutral journalism as their ideal. Values like neutral reporting and objectivity have, however, been difficult to uphold in a situation when the home country is under attack. Not surprisingly, patriotism is also an important factor in a country at war on its own soil. These feelings are obviously different from the perspective of Swedish journalists, for example, who covered the same conflict for a Swedish audience. Moreover, many Ukrainian journalists who tried to work in the conflict zone have been threatened, attacked, and in some cases even killed. This has certainly limited the journalists’ ability to cover the conflict from different angles and perspectives.

The Russian state — according to the authors — rarely needs to force Russian journalists to support a particular government line. Given the difficult conditions for journalists, and the media logic in Russia, a tacit understanding of which angles should be presented has been established. News articles and TV-clips are generally backed up by multiple sources in order to present a sense of objective reporting. In reality, however, the coverage of the conflict, with some exceptions, presents an interpretation of the events in line with the Russian government. Often there is a lack of historical context, and Ukraine is often described as a tool for western states aiming to weaken Russia.

In Poland, the conflict echoes bad historical experiences, something that is also seen in the media coverage. Links are drawn between Poland and Ukraine as two states that historically lost their independence to Russia and to the risk that this history may once again repeat itself. Polish media also focus on Putin, the effect on the Polish economy, the shooting down of the Malaysian plane MH-17, as well as the broader security implications of the conflict.

Swedish journalists have clearly been the most distanced and objective of the journalists in the study. Perhaps this should not come as a surprise given Sweden’s long history of free press and its geographical and historical distance to the conflict itself. Swedish media have presented the conflict’s implications for international politics, and the MH-17 incident, but also to some extent civilian aspects of the conflict covered by Swedish journalists on the ground in eastern Ukraine.

Today it is clear that both journalists and citizens have to be able to handle the increased amount of information, as well as disinformation, that comes from various sources. This requires citizens to be increasingly active readers and to be critical of information. This is particularly true in a conflict setting where stakes are high for all parties involved. At the same time, as the authors conclude, the overall picture presented in the book is perhaps not that surprising after all, at least not in the context of previous research on conflicts and the role played by media. Historically, media have often been loyal to the state and military during wartime, and this seems to be true also for Russian and Ukrainian media. For journalists with more distance to the conflict like in Sweden, and in Poland to a certain extent, it is easier to provide a more nuanced picture of the conflict, although disinformation and propaganda sometimes make this aim difficult even for these journalists.

The main strength of the book is, as already mentioned, the detailed comparison of media coverage in the four countries. The book provides rich material for anyone with a general interest in media coverage of conflicts and for those interested in the Ukrainian-Russian conflict itself. Given its many authors, the book is somewhat unfocused and deals with many different sub-topics. Overall, though, the editors have done a good job in coordinating the different chapters.

One important question that is only touched upon in this book is the role of social media in the framing of the conflict and how social media interact with traditional media. Through social media, information (and disinformation) is spread quickly and narratives are created by a mix of actors including states, traditional news media, “new media”, various interest groups, and individuals. This phenomenon has been intensively discussed, for example, in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election in the United States. There are reasons to believe that the role of social media has important implications for our understanding of Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the conflict in eastern Ukraine. But exactly how social media matter for the conflict is still an open question, and this is not discussed thoroughly in the book. An attempt to investigate social media’s role during the same time period could therefore be an important next step for the authors.

A final reflection that becomes clear when reading this book is the challenge — especially for journalists in the west — of how to handle Russian media and politicians. Russian media portray a black and white image, and the Russian government denied any involvement in the conflict with Ukraine for a long time. A traditional western journalistic approach to reporting from a conflict tries to identify different parties and then to present a critical evaluation of the sides in that conflict. In this particular conflict, however, journalists and other actors that are critical towards the Ukrainian government will immediately be used by Russian media (and Russian politicians) as a confirmation of Russia’s official narrative of the conflict. This is clearly a challenge for objective journalism. A related difficulty that is increasingly discussed by governments is how to respond to disinformation. Myth busting is one approach discussed in this book. State-led counter-propaganda and blockades of certain news media channels and websites are two other — much more controversial — approaches.

To sum up, the book includes a rich amount of material and ideas that will be useful for readers with an interest in the conflict itself, but also for those interested in the broader discussion about the role the media play in today’s military conflicts. ≈

 

  • by Per Ekman

    Per Ekman is a Ph.D. candidate in political science at Uppsala University. He studies political autonomy in Georgia and Ukraine, and has previously worked in Georgia.

  • all contributors

Ukraina och informationskriget – journalistik mellan ideal och självcensur [Ukraine and the information war – journalism between ideal and self-censorship] Gunnar Nygren and Jöran Hök (ed.), Myndigheten för samhällsskydd och beredskap. (2016), 279 pages.