This article was originally published Feb. 11. In the early hours of Feb. 24, Russian troops began to move into Ukraine.
The White House and intelligence sources are warning that a Russian invasion of Ukraine may be imminent. Now is the best time for journalists and news organizations to hold discussions about the perils of covering military actions in real time.
Here are some considerations that every newsroom — local, national and international — should keep in mind in the uncertain days ahead.
Set high standards for when and how to use info and visuals from social media
Whatever unfolds in Ukraine, some of it will be documented by locals with smartphones who will pepper social media accounts with what they see and hear. One prediction about how a first wave of a Russian attack might unfold is that a cyber-attack may occur first. That could cut off the usual tap of communication from inside the country, meaning at first, reports of troop movements and casualties may come from people who are not on the frontlines.
At the same time, Russia, particularly, has a track record of using social media to spread disinformation and propaganda. The Biden administration warned last week that intelligence reports indicated Russia was planning “false flag” reports that would make it appear that Ukraine itself ignited military action.
University of Wisconsin journalism ethicist Kathleen Bartzen Culver reminds journalists to “triangulate” everything they see on social media to nail down where images and information originated. Research a source’s past reliability, whether the images and information align with other trusted sources and whether the sources are named.
Embeds aren’t happening now, but use caution if they do
While U.S. troops will not be involved in any ground action, they will be in the area. Journalists, however, will not be among them. Many news organizations — including The New York Times, ABC News, Time, Stars and Stripes and the Military Times — petitioned the Pentagon this week “to permit access for journalists so that they can rightfully keep the American public and families of our troops informed.”
Should reporters be granted access to U.S. troops, the information will be helpful, but not superior to other reporting points, including independent reporters in Ukraine. Military embeds are influenced by the unit they are with and all sides of a military action have a tendency to create narratives that support their point of view. Embed reporting must be balanced with similar reporting.
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Clearly label when and where images and video were captured
For several days, we have noticed the same video of Russian troops firing missiles in a military “exercise” being used to illustrate Russia’s threat. Repeatedly airing incendiary video heightens emotions and, frankly, in this case, it plays into Russia’s strategy to release the videos of their missile practice. Timestamp everything and clearly source each image and video clip you use.
Consider when and why you include graphic images and video
Keep in mind that you may soon have to make decisions about how and whether you would use video of the victims of war. Graphic images have the potential to solidify support for military action just as they have the potential to turn public support against military action.
Images and video of injured or dying children can be especially traumatic and often become the most memorable account of any military conflict. Think now about what your standards might be for whether to show bloody images in color and whether your standards for graphic images are the same for online as they are for in print or on the air.
Prepare your weekend and overnight staff members to make decisions in keeping with your newsroom’s standards.
If you choose not to use graphic images, realize that also is an ethical decision. How would you answer suspicions that you are not fully reporting the cost of war or America’s/NATO’s involvement in it?
Line up your experts and vet their credentials
There is a difference between opinion and insight. Are the experts, sources and commentators you turn to really experts on this issue or do they just have a knack for stirring emotions? As you introduce them to your audiences, be sure to explain precisely what their expertise is. And then do not let them overstep that expertise.
An expert on post-WWII history of the Soviet Union may be a valuable source for describing the broad geopolitical developments of the last 70 years, but will not likely understand key military strategy or diplomacy, unless they can demonstrate that area of expertise as well.
In addition to titles, describe the expert’s experience. For instance, an expert might have served as a diplomat, or worked in a private company that fulfilled government contracts.
Fact-check everything and correct your mistakes as soon as you discover it
Your online posts live forever. Clean up mistakes and notate them. Play corrections with the same prominence as the mistake you made, or where the incorrect information appeared.
Kyiv (k’ev) not Keiv (key-ev). Ukraine, not The Ukraine
The first is the Ukrainian spelling and pronunciation of their capital and country. The second is the Russian version, which infiltrated the English language when Russia controlled the country. Given that Ukraine is independent, it’s important to avoid the Russian influence when describing the geography.
Strive for independent coverage
Journalists have an obligation to press for truth, even, maybe especially, in wartime. History is replete with examples of military reports turning out to be at least self-serving if not outright wrong.
Just this week, CNN produced new evidence about the U.S. military’s action to a bombing at the Kabul airport as the U.S. was evacuating troops. In recent months, we have also learned that the U.S. military mistakenly bombed an Afghan home that the military was certain housed a person the Americans believed was planning an attack on U.S. troops in Afghanistan.
Also last week, journalists gave us an example of what it looks like when journalists are skeptical of government claims. The Biden administration said Russia might stage fake, bloody scenes of Ukrainian forces attacking Russian soldiers. Associated Press reporter Matt Lee pushed State Department spokesman Ned Price to provide proof. Here was part of the exchange.
“You said ‘actions such as these suggest otherwise,’ meaning they are not going to go ahead with talks. What actions are you talking about?” Lee asked Price at the press conference.
Just because the U.S. government says something is true is not a good enough reason to pass the information along. If there is no evidence, be sure to tell the audience that.
Where are US troops?
The White House warned Friday that U.S. troops will not be coming to the rescue of Americans who fail to leave Ukraine. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, “There is no prospect of a U.S. military evacuation in the event of a Russian invasion. … The president will not be putting the lives of our men and women in uniform at risk by sending them into a war zone to rescue people who could have left now but chose not to.”
President Joe Biden sent 3,000 American troops into the region in addition to four Navy destroyers that were deployed to the U.S. Sixth Fleet area of operations. 1,700 American soldiers were sent to Poland in case they are needed to help evacuation efforts on the Polish side of the border. Military Times reports, “A Stryker unit based in Germany has begun making its way to Romania, Kirby said. Members of the XVIII Airborne Corps (Ft. Bragg), including Lt. Gen. Erik Kurilla, flew to Germany.”
Keep in mind, The United States has a military presence at all times around the globe. These numbers are constantly rising and falling, but this gives you a general idea:
Get smart about this conflict
This conflict may influence the future of NATO, one of America’s most important alliances. Russian President Vladimir Putin is concerned that NATO might keep moving closer to Russia’s border. The potential for a NATO invitation for Ukraine to join is at the center of this tension, although that has not actually happened.
Putin said in a recent news conference, “Not one inch to the east,’ they told us in the ’90s. So what? They cheated, just brazenly tricked us!”
That “not one inch” reference was uttered by U.S. Secretary of State James Baker in 1990. You can read more about that very important phrase here. The context of that statement was not in a promise, but in a question that Baker asked of Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when he asked, “Would you prefer to see a unified Germany outside of NATO, independent and with no U.S. forces, or would you prefer a unified Germany to be tied to NATO, with assurances that NATO’s jurisdiction would not shift one inch eastward from its present position?”
Putin consistently defends Russia’s military actions by pointing to NATO military near Russian borders.
Watch your tone
Our general advice is that the tone of your coverage should inform not inflame. Generally, the more serious the situation, the more resolute your coverage should become. Be circumspect about using clever headlines, clickbait social posts and scaremongering newscast opens.
Consider these resources
The Council on Foreign Relations offers these other deep Russian/Ukrainian interests:
Family ties. Russia and Ukraine have strong familial bonds that go back centuries. Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, is sometimes referred to as “the mother of Russian cities,” on par in terms of cultural influence with Moscow and St. Petersburg. It was in Kyiv in the eighth and ninth centuries that Christianity was brought from Byzantium to the Slavic peoples. And it was Christianity that served as the anchor for Kievan Rus, the early Slavic state from which modern Russians, Ukrainians, and Belarussians draw their lineage.
Russian diaspora. Among Russia’s top concerns is the welfare of the approximately eight million ethnic Russians living in Ukraine, according to a 2001 census, mostly in the south and east. Moscow claimed a duty to protect these people as a pretext for its actions in Ukraine.
Superpower image. After the Soviet collapse, many Russian politicians viewed the divorce with Ukraine as a mistake of history and a threat to Russia’s standing as a great power. Losing a permanent hold on Ukraine, and letting it fall into the Western orbit, was seen by many as a major blow to Russia’s international prestige.
Crimea. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev transferred Crimea from Russia to Ukraine in 1954 to strengthen the “brotherly ties between the Ukrainian and Russian peoples.” However, since the fall of the union, many Russian nationalists in both Russia and Crimea have longed for a return of the peninsula. The city of Sevastopol is home port for Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, the dominant maritime force in the region.
In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea, a part of Ukraine. 14,000 people died in that conflict. Keep in mind that Ukraine was once the second-largest country in the Soviet bloc, which at one time included 15 republics. The Soviet’s Black Sea Fleet was stationed there. Ukraine was critically important to the Soviets as an agricultural area.
Trade. Russia was for a long time Ukraine’s largest trading partner, although this link has withered dramatically in recent years. China now tops Russia in its trade with Ukraine. Prior to its invasion of Crimea, Russia had hoped to pull Ukraine into its single market, the Eurasian Economic Union, which today includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan.
Energy. Russia has relied on Ukrainian pipelines to pump its gas to customers in Central and Eastern Europe for decades, and it continues to pay billions of dollars per year in transit fees to Kyiv. However, in mid-2021, Russia completed construction of its Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which runs under the Baltic Sea to Germany. Although Russia is contracted to keep moving gas through Ukraine for several more years, some critics in the United States and Europe warn that Nord Stream 2 will allow Russia to bypass Ukrainian pipelines if it wants and gain greater geopolitical leverage in the region.
Your work in the days ahead will be vital
The single best thing any of us can do at an uncertain time is to be the most professional journalists we can be. We cannot block bullets or stop wars. But the greatest suffering is that which happens out of the world’s view. Journalism and the search for truth, even uncomfortable truths, is an act of patriotism.