Thursday, February 20, 2014

Cold-war media rhetoric does disservice to media consumers

In a cold-war flashback, the media in Russia and the U.S. seem to be offering competing narratives about the uprising in Ukraine.

This was brought to my attention by one of the best students I have ever had, Iryna, a Ukrainian who is currently studying abroad. Iryna participated in a peace journalism training several years ago. She wrote, “When I watch the news reports about the events and how they are covered by the media in other countries, I often remember our discussion about peace journalism in Peace Camp. While Western media mainly focus on the overall situation often presenting the information from both sides of conflict, Russian media continuously go with the official version of Ukrainian government and declare all Ukrainian protesters to be "terrorists", and cut out particular segments of the videos or photos where the protesters are fighting against the police, completely cutting them out of context.”

While there is no study yet about the Russian vs. Western coverage of Ukraine, a quick glance at several websites confirms Iryna’s observations.

On the official website of Pravda, a semi-official Russian newspaper/website, articles about Ukraine do toe a discernible line, one that often places blame squarely on the protesters. The story “Civilians killed, death toll grows” uses the inflammatory language “extremists” and “radicals” to describe the protesters. While it does contain one sentence about “alleged” police shootings, the bulk of the story is from Ukrainian officials decrying the violence. Pravda’s coverage includes a story titled “Kiev sniper shoots 20 law enforcers.” This would seem consistent with Pravda’s effort to paint all the protesters with the same brush—murdering radicals and extremists.

A Pravda editorial, “Ukraine-Some questions,” clearly articulates a slanted viewpoint. “Western media outlets demonizing the Government, busloads of thugs being ferried around the country, we see the US Secretary of State speaking to the "Opposition", namely armed criminals and agents provocateurs, hooligans and an ex-boxer. What is going on? Shall we believe the western media outlets which speak about a fight for freedom, or shall we speak to Ukrainians - real, balanced Ukrainians, patriots, not wannabe (or)… common criminals, murderers, torturers, thieves - and Islamist fundamentalist elements?”

Others in Russian media are also taking a belligerent tone. In the Russian paper Vedomosti, Vasiliy Kashin writes, "Attempts to implement neo-imperialist plans in this strange country or, on the contrary, to show 'liberal solidarity' are extremely dangerous…."  ( Feb)
Bias is just as evident in the western media. A BBC new analysis, “Why is Ukraine in turmoil,” asks, “Those on the streets say they are struggling over the future development of the country - will it be a country based on the rule of law, or Russian-style oligarchy and closed interests?”  In BBC news reporting, those taking to the streets are called “anti-government protesters”, and never extremists, thugs, etc. While Pravda coverage seems to center on protester misbehavior, the opposite is true of BBC coverage. For example, “At least 21 protesters have been killed by security forces in Kiev following the breakdown of a truce agreed on Wednesday.”

CNN’s narrative has a similar tone, and repeats the mantra ”anti-government protesters”. The focus of the story “Truce Crumbles” (20 Feb) is on protesters fortifying barriers and “dodging” sniper fire. Later in that story, however, CNN did report that protesters were throwing rocks and Molotov cocktails. In an analysis piece “20 Questions”, CNN blames the unrest on “Russia's opposition to (closer EU ties). Russia threatened its much smaller neighbor with trade sanctions and steep gas bills if Ukraine forged ahead.”

Also, American syndicated columnist George Will writes that the Ukraine uprising is ‘the final episode of the Cold War’ in which the Kiev protesters are repudiating the trans-national Marxism of the old Soviet Union. He calls Russian president Vladimir Putin a ‘little, strutting Mussolini.’” ( Feb).

This cold war rhetoric does a disservice to both western and Russian audiences, leaving them with a one dimensional view of the conflict (and of each other) that lacks depth and nuance. Peace journalists shun the rhetoric in these antiquated narratives and stereotypes, eschewing “popular wisdom” while seeking balance and perspective. A peace journalist recognizes propaganda from any source, and seeks cleanse it with facts. Journalists covering the Ukrainian conflict would do well to apply the principles of peace journalism to their reporting and commentary.

1 comment:

  1. OK, I'm not a journalist. And up front I will acknowledge what is perhaps both an antiquated narrative and stereotype. But this whole Crimean episode compels me to reflect on another time in history: before the cold war. Even before that last "hot" war we called a World war. I'm thinking of Europe between 1936 & 1939. A little mustached man with great ambition and power. The Olympics in Berlin in 1936, followed shortly thereafter by the "anchluss," Germanys annexation of Austria in March of 1938, followed yet by the annexation of the Sudetenland of Czechoslovakia (to protect it's ethnic German populations) I'm also thinking of another world leader from that time, tall and thin, representing a once powerfull nation still reeling from a war it "won" 20 years prior, ending his political career linked to a failed strategy of (accusation of) "appeasement." Then in 1939 came the invasion of Poland "provoked" by Polish police threatening German citizens. Of course we now know that those Polish police were German soldiers in disguise. and that invasion, really only ended with two nuclear bombs, half a world away, six years hence. I'm not proposing war. I'm just commenting on the historical parrallels, and wondering how our world leaders will "handle" this intrigue.

    (German soldiers who fought soviet and partisan troops in the Crimea in 1941 & 1942 were honored with the award of the "Krim Shield" to be worn on their left sleaves. A visible announcement of "Been there, done that." That announcement provokes a timely perspective that our world leaders seem destined through time to forget. Over and over and over and over.

    But apparently "Mine is not to question why..."

    Peace. But not too much. Gary Bachman