This morning as soon as I woke up, I went immediately to search for news from Ukraine. It’s hard to imagine a more important, more devastating story gripping the world right now.
It is not a local story for much of America, yet, and its significance is undoubtedly greater to those of us who lived through the Cold War. I spent much of my childhood with the possibility of war with Russia, with nuclear bomb drills and fictional depictions on TV that didn’t seem far-fetched.
The top foreign policy story that consistently captivates many Americans these days is climate change, according to the latest Pew Research survey.
Russia still matters. It mattered enough to be a survey question for Pew, which asked respondents whether limiting the influence and power of Russia should be a top foreign policy priority of the US government; between 37 and 45 percent indicated it would, a spread that reflects whether they believed international cooperation was beneficial to solving the problem.
It begs the question: what role, if any, do local news outlets have in even covering this story?
We are the referee in a news information battle, throwing flags when we need to and making the hard call after seeing the replay. People trust us, at least more than they trust national news.
We have an obligation to our readers to point them to credible news sources about Russia and Ukraine, even if we may not be covering the story ourselves. Russia’s propaganda machine is effective at influencing our readers. We know this well from the 2016 presidential election. At the smallest, most local levels, the Russians were there to steer our readers in one direction, to create dissent, to occupy the agenda. They’re already in our comment sections. Do our readers know how to spot a troll?
This is the time to partner with a local public radio or TV outlet, to team up to promote news literacy on this story. Instead of simply interviewing the Russian and Eastern European experts at the community college or other educational institution, I would ask them to help explain to readers where readers can go to find more information, to find credible information. I’d share the Instagram names of Ukrainian photographers; they’re not hard to find. I’d provide links to English-language Ukrainian news outlets like the Kyiv Independent. Let people get news directly from the source if they don’t like our filter.
Even if our readers have grown tired after 20 years of war in Afghanistan, we can explain why this is different. For 77 years, international order has maintained that big countries don’t take smaller ones by force. Such an order has given us peace for decades even though it may not seem that way.
Even with the civil wars and regional conflicts, that order has enabled global cooperation to bring people together to try to solve problems of climate change, refugees, terrorism and yes, even the pandemic. It has opened trade.
A world in which Russia can grab what it wants because of its size and military power is not a world that makes the lives of our readers better. In fact, it’s a world with deep economic costs. It’s a world that will make it harder to solve the local problems that vex us because we will be too distracted by the big ones.
I personally do not want my children to grow up under the threat of nuclear war. I don’t want them to grow up in a world in which America’s power continues to be diminished, where big is better, where small is at risk. I don’t want our external threats to hog the attention; our internal ones, which the Jan. 6 insurrection showed, are also real.
But mostly, I don’t want our readers to turn away, and I know, after decades in the business, that they will if I don’t give them a reason not to.
A version of this story first appeared in Publisher’s Auxiliary, the only national publication serving America’s community newspapers. It is published by the National Newspaper Association. GJR is partnering with Pub Aux to re-print Jackie Spinner’s monthly “Local Matters” column on our website. Spinner is the editor of Gateway Journalism Review. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.