Media coverage of Ukraine’s crisis: War for people’s minds

It now is evident that Ukraine has been noted on the world’s map by a vast majority of Americans. From “somewhere near Russia,” it has moved to “between Russia and the European Union” – and this awareness happened thanks to coverage in all renowned national and local media in the United States and beyond. Since December, Ukraine’s political crisis has shown how some media play with information and how journalism is dependent on geopolitics.

Journalists’ work

Being a Ukrainian native, I was monitoring media from different parts of the world in terms of how they have covered the Ukrainian crisis, paying special attention to those countries involved in resolving the issue: the United States, Europe, Russia and Ukraine itself. Ukraine became a newsmaker ever since unrest grew at Euro-maidan (Kiev’s main square) from what started as peaceful protests against delaying the EU-Ukraine- associated membership deal by pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych in November. The unrest converted evolved into a bloody anti-government conflict, with more than 100 killed, thousands injured and pre-war relations between Ukraine and Russia (de facto Russian military aggression) over the Crimean peninsula annexation.

From December to February, Kiev was dangerous place for journalists to work. The first journalist to suffer injuries was Tetiana Chornovol, who worked for the anti-government online publication Ukrainska Pravda. She was beaten by unknown attackers in late December. In January, tension and street violence rose. It seemed that attacks by special police forces were aimed against the least protected and most vulnerable people because of their work conditions: journalists and paramedic volunteers. Ukrainian Espreso.tv provided videos, where police and snipers’ weapons purposely targeted the word “press” and red crosses on protective waistcoats. Forty-six journalists were reported injured, and two dead, after clashes in Kiev.

The journalists’ most recent work has become entangled in controversy and obstacles as the Crimean conflict escalates. A Ukrainian journalist from the weekly magazine Ukrainsky Tuzhden and a freelance photographer were kidnapped and tortured in Crimea. A group of journalists from Ukraine’s national TV network 1+1 was deported from Russia after shooting video in North Ossetia, a territory annexed by Russia from Georgia in 2008. A similar story happened with journalists of the channel Ukraine in the unacknowledged republic of Abkhazia, which has been controlled by Russia since 1993. Journalists still are doing their jobs, but now very differently.

U.S. coverage and the European angle

Among the first media that started covering Ukrainian events were the U.S.newspapers the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, and the broadcast network CNN. Attempts to localize news and give pointed opinions prevailed over “pure” informing. As the conflict spread beyond the Euromaidan protests to Ukraine as a whole, with a major hot spot in Crimea, the United States stepped in as a mediator between Russia and Ukraine. American media exploded with all kinds of stories, ranging from very supportive and positive toward Ukraine to negative ones as well. The New York Times’ leading opinion pieces, as well as CNN’’s news and commentaries (including Anderson Cooper’s first-hand reporting from Ukraine), mostly expressed neutral and supportive positions. For example, the New York Times ran an opinion column from Nicholas Kristof in which he deliberately explained why the “villains” are the Russian troops in Crimea. The Washington Post published Condoleezza Rice’s opinion story urging a stronger U.S. position in this conflict. Opinion pieces challenging U.S. involvement and support of Ukraine appeared in the Los Angeles Times, including those by Paul Whitefield, who contrasted American internal financial needs with providing monetary support to Ukraine.

European media, not surprisingly, showed more in-depth coverage on Ukraine’s crisis, as geographical closeness is still is a crucial factor for world media to involve their foreign reporters into first-hand coverage. The BBC created a special section on its web-site, with live updating on events via Twitter, Facebook, other media, and its own correspondents. The same kind of attitude to covering Ukrainian events was expressed by the Guardian in Britain and Germany’s Douche Welle. In an edition for non-stop Ukrainian coverage Poland’s most influential newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, had special issues published in the Ukrainian language, showing its support in that way.

Despite the different angles in coverage, a general message sent by Western media is that Ukraine is divided within the framework of Ukrainian versus Russian languages and ethnic issues. In fact, this generalization was a case in pre-revolutionary Ukraine. Events from recent months have dramatically influenced people’s views and self-identifications. Newscasts and analytical articles on the nation’s uniting during the conflict are missing in Western coverage, while it is widely shown by Ukraine’s media. This notion of national division has been played for centuries by politicians and historians. Now it is being widely exaggerated by the Russian government to justify that country’s intervention into Ukraine’s sovereignty in Crimea.

Russian propaganda

The portrayal of Ukraine in Russian media cannot be called anything else than propaganda. The majority of Russian television networks (with the only possible exception being Dozhd’ [Rain], which is an opposition TV channel) shows an alternative reality to the coverage from the rest of the world.

The recent facts of pro-government propaganda and press freedom persecution in Russia include a series of resignations from well-known media. The first occurred when Russia Today anchor Liz Wahl quit her job on-air because of unfair coverage of the Ukrainian crisis. A week later, 39 staff members including 32 journalists – and all of the photo editing staff – resigned from Lenta.ru, the oldest liberal online newspaper in Russia. The staffers quit in a show of support for chief editor Galina Timchenko, who was fired from the paper’s independent position and replaced by a pro-Kremlin editor.

Misleading and unfair reporting prevail throughout Russian media, regardless of whether the platform is print, broadcasting or online. Until recently, Russian media on the Internet stayed the least controlled by the government and the most open to publishing diverse opinions. But now it also is being repressed by the government: oppositional web-sites are banned, as well as blogs and live- journal accounts of prominent oppositional leaders Alexei Navalny and Garry Kasparov, the website of radio station Echo of Moscow and more.

Since March 1, when thousands of unidentified troops (in uniforms that resemble those of Russian troops) appeared in Crimea, Russian TV channel Russia 24 reported that thousands of refugees from Ukraine were on the Russia-Ukraine border. In fact, however, they provided archival video that showed cars lined up at a Polish-Ukrainian custom check-point. Officially, just 89 Ukrainians have asked for asylum in Russia during the first two weeks of March. Later, other television networks, while reporting devastating clashes between pro-Russian forces and Ukrainians in Simferopol, used archival video from Kiev’s February protests instead.

The most recent evidence of Russia’s goals to invade and monopolize Ukraine’s informational space includes the military capture of Crimean Tatar’s TV channel ATR, dumping Ukrainian channels from cable networks and replacing them with Russian ones, and the closing of Ukrainian radio stations in Crimea. All this happened at the same time as preparations were made for the illegal referendum about the annexation of Crimea by Russia. While officials in Moscow refuse to take responsibility for these actions their origin are more or less obvious.

Inside view from Ukraine

Staying fair, objective and transparent has been the hardest task for the Ukrainian media. In this situation, when media conglomerates comprising major television networks and publishing houses are controlled by billionaires that were close to Yanukovych’s administration, obeying the duty of objective journalism is hardly achievable. For instance, during the riots in Kiev’s, the reality of Yanukovych’s official position was presented by the TV channel Inter (which is controlled by pro-Kremlin oligarch Dmytro Firtash, who recently was imprisoned in Austria as a result of Interpol and FBI’s investigations). Nevertheless, the majority of national media remained fairly balanced in covering the events. Moreover, the newest positive processes in Ukrainian journalism occurred.

First, almost immediately after the beginning of the clashes at Euro-maidan, the special television online channels Espresso.tv and UkrStream started streaming around the clock from the epicenter of the events. This is a new phenomenon for Ukrainian television, and most of the Ukrainian networks borrowed and retransmitted videos from these channels to cover the events in Kiev.

Second, after 20 years of useless discussions and lost attempts to create public media, self-organized public service broadcasting online channel, Hromadske.tv, was created. Indeed, the boundary conditions of the new revolution forced journalists into this unprecedented step in Ukraine’s history. Prominent journalists from mainstream Ukrainian print, broadcast and online media share their free time after their full-time work assignments to contribute to this public service initiative. So far, it works only in a form of online streaming from one self-maintained studio, combining studio interviews and analytics with onsite web-cams streaming by journalists, and Skype interviews/video conferences. Perhaps, the most- viewed streams were those from ousted President Yanukovych’s residency Mezhihir’ya, where journalists were picturing the royal-like wealth of its former owner. Besides the ethical nuances of this reporting (along with the fact that the majority of national, and some international, media did stories on the treasures of corrupted officials by invading their outcast private residencies), it generated huge social interest. The special public website YanukovychLeaks was created by journalists and civil activists for investigating the corrupt schemes of the former president and his government.

The booming popularity of this long-awaited initiative led to the recent development where Hromandske.tv started broadcasting as a joint project of the television channel First, which is the oldest national TV network (it has a penetration rate of 95 percent of Ukraine’s territory and is the “mouthpiece” of the Ukrainian government). This example of cooperation has been followed by another project of Ukrainian television that aim to unify Ukrainian society.

Social media: So who controls the people’s minds?

The Ukrainian revolution happened with great help from (or because of) social media. Social media are widely used as informational sources now, since it already has been accepted practice for major media players across the globe to disseminate news through them. But person-to-person interaction made Facebook and Twitter, along with Ukrainian and Russian local social media (Vkontakte and Odnoklassniki) key platforms for negotiating the public gatherings at Euro-maidan protests in November. They were used for further coordination of protests.

Dozens of pages that supported and confronted the protests, and that followed the Ukraine-Russia conflict, were created in social media in recent months. Politicians and public figures post comments and tweet about events online. YouTube also is a main platform for the newest streaming videos and the output of public television channels, which shortly after appearing online become widely known in Ukraine. Such use of social media for the needs of mobilizing and influencing people cannot have stayed unnoticed by those interested in information manipulation. The signs of informational war have already been seen in Ukraine, as constant denial-of-service attacks on some of Ukraine’s most-viewed news sites (such as Channel 5, Hromadske.tv, and Ukrainska Pravda) and their YouTube channels are reported. Traditional media are not the main players in this war any more. One should be very picky in choosing sources of information to get the sense of the truth. This might be one of the most obvious inferences about role of Ukraine’s crisis in today’s media world.


Senator bars television coverage of committee session

A state senator has barred television coverage of his committee’s consideration of legislation criminalizing the enforcement of federal gun laws in Missouri.

As the senate’s General Laws Committee prepared Jan. 28 to consider the bill, chairman Brian Nieves announced: “Executive sessions are not videotaped, so videos will need to be turned off at this point.” Earlier, Nieves had ordered a reporter for a Columbia-based television station to remove his camera and tripod from the committee room.

“This is the first time I can ever remember that television coverage of a hearing was effectively prohibited since executive committee meetings were opened up in the early ’70s,” said Phill Brooks, the dean of the press corps and the director of the state government reporting program of the University of Missouri School of Journalism.

Nieves, a Republican from Washington, is the sponsor of the bill that would declare invalid federal gun laws and make it a crime for a federal employee to enforce them. The bill would also let school districts to designate trained teachers to carry concealed weapons.

The bill also would require a federal agent to notify the local sheriff before serving a warrant. A similar bill passed by the legislature last year failed to become law after Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed it.

According to Brooks, after the first hearing on the bill last week, Nieves announced that tripods would not be allowed in the committee room, and that a 24-hour notice would have to be given to his office for a camera to be brought in to videotape the meeting.

“Without a tripod, you’d get terrible shaky video,” Brooks said.

Television cameras mounted on tripods are used to cover all other legislative committee meetings.

On Monday, Nieves’ office was given notice by KOMU-TV, Channel 8 in Columbia, of a request to cover Tuesday’s hearing. Jessica Johnson, Nieves’ assistant, responded to the request with an email saying, “Yes, it is OK for them to video today. However, the senator is requesting that no tripods or machines that prevent the view of people be used.”

Brooks said that not only were tripods banned, but cameras were to be placed behind the seating for general public, meaning for video “all you will have is the back of the heads of the witnesses.”

“My reporter made the decision, and I agreed with it, that we would put up the tripod in the normal place where cameras have always been located to cover committee hearings,” Brooks said. “And if the senator objected, he could tell us.”

Nieves had one of his staff order the reporter, Michael Doudna, a journalism school student, to remove the camera and tripod.

There was no explanation for Nieves’ prohibition of videotaping of the committee’s executive session, in which senators discuss and vote on the bills before them. Doudna returned to the committee room without his camera to cover the meeting. The committee approved the bill.

Nieves did not respond to the GJR’s emailed and telephoned requests for an interview. But his assistant, Johnson, shared her email exchange regarding the television coverage request.

“Senator Nieves would prefer that you take up any further concerns you may have with that actual reporter,” Johnson said.

Mainstream media cut back on statehouse coverage as special interests launch

Editor's note: This is a preview of a story that will appear in the spring 2013 print issue of Gateway Journalism Review.

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. – If Joseph Pulitzer could return to Missouri’s state capital, he’d probably recognize a recent development that was familiar during his time: politicians publishing newspapers.

At the beginning of this legislative session, Rod Jetton, a former House speaker, launched a startup weekly, the Missouri Times. The newspaper and its website promotion promised “a different kind of media outlet” that would become “Missouri’s newspaper of politics and culture.”

The journal’s arrival represented a new phase in the evolution of Missouri government coverage. As traditional news organizations have diminished, new media platforms have stepped in.

New technologies also have changed the pace and method of government reporting. Journalists now reach people with bits of information through blog postings and Twitter.

Covering state government, especially during legislative sessions, has always been a foot race. Now reporters no longer have the luxury of daily deadlines, which before provided time to take a breath and to put events into context.

Journalists now deliver a steady stream of information through the Internet. All reporters have “a deadline every minute,” a demand once faced only by wire-service reporters.

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“It’s always been a job where you are doing multiple things at once,” said Virginia Young, chief of bureau for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “But it’s just multiplied tremendously given the electronic coverage.”


The hidden story of Citizens United

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Editor’s note: This is a response to a story on the Gateway Journalism Review website written by William H. Freivogel titled “Election results show super PACs can’t buy Republican victories.”

The hidden story of Citizens United this year and for the next couple of years (assuming it’s still in place) isn’t at the federal level — there’s just too much campaign, party and party committee money in the presidential and senate races for the outside money to have a significant influence. But for state- and municipal-level races, it’s a different story. How much would it take to blanket a few state assembly districts in each state with enough money to flip a bunch of statehouses? How much would it take to overrun the judicial election process across some big states? How about replicating Proposition 13 in growing and purpling states like North Carolina and Virginia? Races like these have a lot less money in them to start with, which means that corporate cash could control a much more lopsided debate.

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Election night viewing, GJR-style


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True confession: Gateway Journalism Review’s staff is made up of political junkies with long traditions of monitoring election-evening results. Our own political media monitoring likely mirrors that of much of the American population. So, at the risk of being too introspective, here is how GJR staffers spent Tuesday evening.

John Jarvis, associate managing editor:

This time around, there was no newsroom chaos, no page-layout duties and no late-night deadlines for me.

On the night of this year’s presidential election, I headed over to a gathering of friends after my master’s seminar was done for the evening.

Eight of us were flipping between channels on television, trying to catch the latest news on how the race was panning out, while at the same time all of us were carrying on a running Facebook chat commentary with a larger group of friends from across the nation. The technology that allowed us to be connected with each other in real time, sharing each tidbit from the various news sites we were monitoring, didn’t exist even four years ago.

It was a far cry from the first presidential race I was involved with as a journalist, when I was an assistant wire editor gathering information from the Associated Press for the next day’s newspaper in 1988.

Part of me misses that newsroom chaos and deadline pressure that goes with these quadrennial contests. Other parts of me – my nerves and my liver, in particular – don’t miss it at all.

Sam Robinson, managing editor:

Initially, I tried to check election results online. However, living in a rural setting, my Internet connection is often interrupted because of weather conditions and high-volume usage – and we had both. I turned to television network news and social media via my mobile phone.

My channel surfing included a rotation through Fox News, CNN, NBC, ABC, CBS and PBS. Several of the broadcasts comprised anchors and pundits talking over one another and not listening to what was being said. This frustrated me. I finally landed on CBS News around 10 p.m. I found its coverage to be in a traditional journalistic style that I appreciated. Bob Schieffer provided context and perspective, having covered many elections.

I first learned President Obama had been declared the winner via Twitter, specifically in a tweet from BBC News. (Actually, I first “heard” of the Obama win from my 14-year-old daughter who shouted, “Obama won!” Despite her youth, she had taken a keen interest in the Missouri U.S. Senate race between Democrat incumbent Claire McCaskill and her challenger, Todd Akin, and stayed up late watching election results.)

I was following BBC and Global Post news organizations, as well as several entertainers on Twitter. One such entertainer was Lady Gaga. Gaga had posts throughout the day about polling locations in New York and the East Coast, as well as her election-night thoughts. I suspect many learned of the Obama victory via Lady Gaga, given her more than 31 million Twitter followers, which is quite impressive considering organizations such as BBC Breaking News has 4.3 million and CBS just 2.2 million followers.

William A. Babcock, editor:

I come from a divided family. My father was Republican ward chairman from Northern Ohio. My mother was an ardent FDR supporter. In 1960 my father personally routed GOP Henry Cabot Lodge’s caravan down Lake Road in Avon Lake, Ohio, so I could shake the hand of “the future vice president of the United States.” Eight years later I passed out of college freshman English by writing an essay – obviously not overly persuasive – enumerating the reasons why Richard M. Nixon was unqualified to be president. Add to this mix the fact that a Philadelphia signer of the U.S. Constitution, George Clymer, is a relative of mine. So, yes, American politics clearly runs through my veins.

Thus, as I’ve done since the days I was a young general assignment reporter for the Chronicle-Telegram (Elyria, Ohio) and senior international news editor and writing coach for the Christian Science Monitor, I spent election eve phoning people from across the nation. Former journalism workers, current academic colleagues, one-time students, my daughter – none were spared from my Tuesday “what do you think of the results so far?” phone calls.

At the same time on Tuesday I bounced between PBS and NBC and NPR. Like Sam Robinson, I had difficulty accessing the Internet that evening, so I relied on the traditional media for my political news. I first heard of AP’s and NBC’s projection while on my cell phone with a former news college as I watched PBS. I later fell asleep while listening to WSIU’s radio updates (the local National Public Radio affiliate) on voting in the swing states of Ohio and Florida.

I should add that during this semester at Southern Illinois University’s School of Journalism, my undergraduate and graduate classes have been divided into groups of students, with group members monitoring the political coverage of specific news organizations. When I asked these students Tuesday how they planned to monitor the election results, everyone, with one exception, said he or she would use a variety of broadcast, cable and online media that evening. The lone student said he planned to go to bed early Tuesday, set his alarm for Wednesday morning and then turn on the radio to see who had won the race.

William H. Freivogel, publisher:

I’ve covered just about every election night for the past 40 years, most of them at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. One – 1984 – was particularly memorable. My wife, Margaret, and I had been covering vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro that year. We had traveled on her plane enough to get to know her pretty well. On election night, we packed up our four young children at our house in Bethesda, Md., and traveled to her campaign celebration/wake at the New York Hilton hotel, where Margie covered the story.

As memorable as that election was, I have never lived through a night like this year’s. I am a contributor to the St. Louis Beacon, the online news site where my wife is the editor. I was only too happy when the Beacon asked me to help on election night. But it was a different scene than usual. The Beacon’s television partner was filming in the newsroom. The Beacon was part of a public media consortium called Beyond November that provided detailed coverage of the election campaign and results. The other members of the consortium were St. Louis Public Radio and the Nine Network.

While the Beacon reporters were writing their stories, TV reporters from the Nine Network and Channel 5 were conducting interviews a few feet away from where I was working. Adding to the chaos, Beacon reporters monitoring Twitter feeds would urgently pass along the latest tweets – NBC had called Pennsylvania for Obama; Senate candidate Rep. Todd Akin was about to give a concession speech. These tweets were not themselves credible enough for us to publish, but they were valuable tips.

Meanwhile, I was getting messages on my cell phone. The messages from my nephew, a conservative Republican, went from slightly hopeful to depressed to despondent. My son-in-law, who was in Atlanta, sent a note saying that national TV had just broadcast a picture of Margie, sitting in the newsroom. A friend of mine sent me an email telling me to stop picking my nose – his not-so-gentle way of saying he had seen me on the tube.

When, suddenly, NBC called the election for Obama, I heard about it the way I’ve heard about most elections in my lifetime – on TV. Moments later my daughter, Liz, sent a simple message, “Yay.”

I was stunned by NBC’s call. The sudden reporting of the West Coast results along with the decisions to call Ohio and Iowa had suddenly sent a nail-biter over the edge to a decision. All I could remember was the nightmare election night of 2000 when the Post-Dispatch, like most other papers, had called the election for George W. Bush. We had retired to a nearby tavern only to see the election move from “decided” to “undecided.” It was the most helpless feeling I had ever had as a journalist.

Pretty soon, though, it became clear that this election would not flip, even if one state did. By 2 a.m., I was crawling into bed. For the past two months I have spent about half an hour before falling to sleep checking all of the RealClear politics polls on my cell phone, reading Nate Silver’s 538 blog and running through the political stories on the New York Times and the Washington Post. Before the St. Louis Cardinals were eliminated from the playoffs, I’d also check all of the ball scores and the standings as well. My wife thought it was a little obsessive.

But now, my 2012 election, full of tweets and blogs and late nights on the cell phone, was over. My phone was dark on the nightstand. But pitchers and catchers report in February, and I was happy to see that, two days after the election, Politico already was reporting a poll out of Iowa finding that Hillary Clinton had a big lead on Joe Biden for the 2016 Democratic nomination.

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