Reporting on War and Conflict: Tips from Our Newsletter
Last Updated November 2023
The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on wars in both Ukraine and Gaza published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.
Language & Word Choice
February 24, 2022
When will/can journalists describe the attacks Russia has begun on Ukraine as a “war”?
When breaking news unfolds before our eyes, newsrooms do their best to keep up with accurate descriptions of events at hand. But, in cases where caution is required and an inaccurate descriptor might be read (perhaps in bad faith) as sensationalist or overdramatic, you may see reporters and editors rely on quotes from institutional voices to determine language choices like these. For instance, many mainstream U.S. news headlines and articles referred to the original attacks as a “large-scale” or “full-scale” invasion via quotes from defense officials.
War is loosely defined as armed conflict between groups or nations, but it’s possible that many outlets hold back on using “war” to describe current events unless an official declaration is made by a country involved (despite Vladimir Putin’s February 21, 2022 speech, which stopped just short of such a decree). Though some outlets like the Guardian and USA Today reported that Russia had “declared war” and some stated Ukraine was bracing for “war” and that the U.S. was preparing for “war refugees,” I predicted many U.S. outlets would refrain from calling these attacks “war” until either a high ranking U.S. official used the term and thus could be quoted, or public discourse made avoiding the term untenable.
March 24, 2022
Can or should journalists and those writing on Russia’s attacks on Ukraine use terms like “war crimes” or “genocide” to describe them?
This question has been raised since Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy described Russia’s attacks on his country as genocide in March 2022. Terms like “genocide” and even “insurrection” or “coup” have both colloquial definitions (what the public understands the term to mean) and legal definitions. Due to their duty to accuracy and also legal liability, news organizations will often only use such terms as their legal definition rather than wade into a grey area.
Thus, despite what the court of public opinion may deem Russia’s attacks, you’ll likely see news organizations only use “genocide” or “war crimes” in the context of quotes from world leaders until direct declarations or charges are made. For instance, the U.S. formally declared that Russian troops have committed war crimes on March 23, 2022.
The legal definition of genocide originates in international law, and if the U.S.’s acknowledgement of Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya — nearly five years later — is any indication, its application to Ukraine may be far away. Philip Gourevitch at the New Yorker, however, made the case that calling Russia’s actions anything else, like “atrocities,” diminishes the enormity of Putin’s goals when time is of the essence to save lives.
It’s crucial that newsrooms use language that meets the moment and helps audiences understand our collective problems. That requires serious consideration of alternatives that both preserve journalistic ethics and accuracy and respect the urgency of the challenges ahead.
October 12, 2023
Speaking of disinformation, Poynter released a handy tip sheet on how to avoid misinformation about the Israel-Hamas war.
October 26, 2023
Our friends at Outlier Media published a letter to their audience this week explaining how they are and are not covering global conflict. If your local newsroom is struggling with the same editorial decisions, I cannot recommend this example of trust-building communication enough. Use it as a template or just inspiration.
As we all struggle with the misinformation running rampant across social media, it might be worth seeing for yourself just how difficult moderation and policy decisions can be. TechDirt recently released a game called Trust & Safety Tycoon that puts you in the driver’s seat. Take it for a spin and let me know how you do!
November 2, 2023
Worth sharing: On the Media has released another one of its social media-friendly Breaking News Consumers’ Handbooks, this time on Israel and Gaza. Let it remind you and yours how to avoid the online fog of war.
November 30, 2023
Interrupting Criminalization is an initiative which works “to end the growing criminalization and incarceration of women, LGBTQ, trans, and gender non-conforming people of color.” They recently published a new media guide in their “Don’t Be a Copagandist” series focused on reporting on Israel and Palestine. It includes guidance on discerning between opposition to Israel’s action, anti-Zionism, and antisemitism, as well as how to avoid language which stereotypes or equivocates.
While reading the news this week, I came across this 2016 New York Times story on the differences between “truce,” “cease-fire,” and “armistice.” If you’re reporting on Gaza, be sure to take a look.
The increasingly complicated Russia-Ukraine crisis, explained
The 24/7 news cycle often means that individual articles and broadcasts frame updates to ongoing stories in a way that assumes the audience is keeping up with every daily brief. But not everyone has the time to do that. That’s why explainers on complex stories like Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are necessary for news organizations to highlight and amplify. Vox has kept a running list of updates in a timeline format that is helpful for those trying to catch up.
The racial bias in western media’s Ukraine coverage is shameful
Nadine White, the Independent
Far too many journalists made racist comments when reporting on Ukraine and those impacted by further Russian invasion. Not only do these comments advance white supremacy, but they also illustrate a double standard in how wars are covered in western media depending on who is doing the invading and what the victims look like. Nadine White explains these examples and their consequences at the Independent, making her a must-read.
Call Out Bigotry in Reporting on the Ukraine Invasion
Issac J. Bailey, Nieman Reports
‘They seem so like us’: In depicting Ukraine’s plight, some in media use offensive comparisons
Sarah Ellison and Travis M. Andrews, Washington Post
For Ukraine — and all news coverage — journalists need to pay attention to word choices
Doris Truong, Poynter
What is an oligarch?
Al Tompkins, Poynter
If you’ve kept an eye on sanctions sought by the U.S. and EU on Russia in early 2022, you may have heard about efforts to capture the assets of Russian oligarchs. Poynter does a good job of quickly explaining Russian oligarchy (aka how the rich and powerful influence the government). But I think it’s equally important to consider how using the term “oligarchs” to denote a nefarious cabal in an enemy country stands in contrast to how we describe the U.S. elite who amass great wealth and use it to influence the government. For more context, I’d highly recommend the Guardian’s “Big Money” series on America’s super-rich; ProPublica’s deep dive into how the wealthiest avoid U.S. income tax; and an essay from Abigail Disney (yes, that Disney) on the ideology of dynastic wealth.
How journalists decide which images from Ukraine are too awful to publish
Paul Farhi, Washington Post
(This does begin with a graphic image.)
The Fight to Feed the Ukrainian Resistance
Taras Kaidan and Mariana Matveichuk, Bloomberg
Bloomberg’s behind the scenes look at how relief kitchens are feeding Ukraine is a bittersweet read. It offers a small serving of hope among the tragic reporting on Russia’s war on Ukraine while raising awareness of what its citizens are going through.
Ukraine’s reporters adapt amid media restrictions and pressure of war
Isobel Koshiw, The Guardian
War reporting is a completely different world. The Guardian spoke with journalists on the ground in Ukraine to understand the decisions they’re forced to make between investigative stories and national security. It’s a fascinating look at how contextual the field’s ethics can and must be.
The media navigates a war of words for reporting on Gaza and Israel
Paul Farhi, The Washington Post
Debate over word choices are a time-honored newsroom tradition. But when the stakes are high — as in language that blames or exonerates parties in a war, for instance — these seemingly hair-splitting arguments take on a unique importance. This Washington Post piece examines the many difficult choices reporters and editors are making while reporting on the Israel-Hamas war. I highly recommend this one, folks. It’ll change how you consume this coverage.
Some Major Newsrooms Tell Reporters: Don’t Say “Terrorism”
Daniel King, Mother Jones
Mother Jones dives into the specific debate over the term “terrorism” and how some newsrooms are banning the word.
Regarding the Pain of Others in Israel and Gaza: How Do We Trust What We See?
Fred Ritchin, Vanity Fair
A new essay in Vanity Fair by photojournalist Fred Ritchin explores the epistemic realities of visual journalism in an era of vast misinformation. He considers the ways producers and consumers of visual media treat its responsibilities to tell the truth differently than those of text media and what that means for us all.
The Israel-Hamas War Is Drowning X in Disinformation
David Gilbert, Wired
I know, I know: you may be just as tired of talking about X and Elon Musk as I am, especially considering how few people actually use the platform. But, like it or not, it was and to some extent remains a significant influence on journalism. So, it’s important that we understand how, as one researcher tells WIRED, “Elon Musk’s changes to the platform work entirely to the benefit of terrorists and war propagandists.” It’s all about the profit structure.
Journalism targeting children, teens explains Middle East conflict in age-appropriate ways
Aralynn McMane, International News Media Association
It’s difficult enough to report on Israel and Gaza from the fog of war, let alone explain it all to children. Luckily, the International News Media Association spoke with the editor of Austria weekly Kleine Kinderzeitung, which has been doing this quite successfully, to learn their best practices. Consider taking on this challenge for your own youth audiences.
Gaza reports more than 11,100 killed. That’s one out of every 200 people.
Ruby Mellen, Artur Galocha and Júlia Ledur, The Washington Post
The Washington Post has published a gripping interactive story on the scale of devastation in Gaza. When we’re faced with numbers like the thousands killed so far in this conflict, it can be difficult for the information to really sink in. Graphic (in the illustrative sense, not the violent sense) representations of such tragedies are one way we can turn the abstract into the concrete. This effort does it well.
What ideas and frameworks might help journalists and writers understand the framings we’ve seen above as they’re happening and subvert them?
Anyone writing for the public should have a solid understanding of framing — how a problem is defined, and who is responsible for creating and solving it — and what it looks like in the wild. Learning how this works at different levels, as the writers below illustrate, can help journalists see how their work defines the power dynamics of conflict.
- Frames of War: When is Life Grievable? by Judith Butler: You didn’t hear it from me, but there’s a PDF of this online. If you read anything today, read pages 36-44.
- Framing Responsibility for Political Issues: The Case of Poverty by Shanto Iyengar: This study shows how news frames impact peoples’ perception of community issues.
- “Looting” or “finding”? by Aaron Kinney: A quick read, this article explores a memorable bit of racist framing of Hurricane Katrina coverage.
- How Language is Deployed as a Weapon of War by Daniel King: This is a concise yet deep dive into how politicians use language to support their ends in wartime.
- Journalism failed in Afghanistan, Too by Peter W. Klein: Another quick read, this touches on the differences in “episodic” vs. “thematic” coverage of war.
As Abdallah Fayyad of the Boston Globe illustrates, this conversation isn’t a zero-sum game. Empathy is not a pie, where a bigger slice here means a smaller slice there.
Stereotypes like comedian Mohanad Elshieky describes come from many places, news media included. “War is the culture of the aggressor” is the key here.
Journalist Jacky Kemigisa wrote an enthusiastic thread on how coverage of Ukraine looks different than that of other recent wars. This tweet raises a great question: whose fighting is overtly supported and whose is not?
To be U.S.-centric for a second: journalist Katelyn Burns brings up another apt comparison for the double standard of coverage.
The Atlantic’s Derek Thompson is referring to 2022 polling by Reuters that asked Americans whether the U.S. should work with NATO to create “no-fly zones” over Ukraine to protect it from Russian attacks, without explaining what that protection truly entails. Thompson is correct that the phrase is a tricky bit of language that conceals a lot of danger. It’s journalistic malpractice to amplify such a poll without establishing an understanding of the consequences of such a move.
“We need to be able to hold both. We need to recognize that anti-colonial struggles are violent. But not all of that violence is in pursuit of a political project. As you say, violence occurs for all different sorts of reasons. We need to be able to hold that truth while also recognizing the ethical purpose of ending apartheid. And I think it’s really hard to do that when the media tries to portray this in black and white. It’s very complex, and we need to be able to hold that complexity.”
— Tareq Baconi, the president of the board of Al-Shabaka, the Palestinian Policy Network
This quote is from an October 2023 interview with Baconi in The New Yorker called “Where the Palestinian Political Project Goes from Here”. I recommend reading the full interview, but I think this excerpt gets at a particular tension in the current public discourse: it is challenging to hold multiple dissonant truths in our heads at once without falling into simplistic “whataboutism” and “both sides” arguments.
After all, our media systems are not built for such complexity. In fact, even as major social networks step back from news, they’re still designed to amplify content that engages our emotions. That’s important to keep in mind during times of heightened conflict.
In October 2023, newsrooms like The New York Times were forced to correct or clarify their reporting on the origins of a bomb that hit a Gaza hospital. They and others reported that Israel had struck the hospital based on claims from Hamas that they could not immediately verify. Vanity Fair has the scoop on how this decision-making went down at the Times, whose own visual investigations team has made strides in understanding what exactly happened.
Financial Times chief data reporter John Burn-Murdoch shared his take (above) on why national newsrooms move too fast on reporting like this. His whole thread is worth a look but, in sum, he argues that a lack of data reporting expertise has real, tangible consequences on this geopolitical conflict.
This is a snippet of a Bluesky conversation between Georgetown professors Dan Moynihan and Erik Voeten and Stanford professor Ken Schultz about classroom conversations on Israel and Gaza. It’s yet another example of the newsroom truism that “dog bites man” isn’t a story but “man bites dog” is — and, as Moynihan points out, its real-time consequences. Violence and threats on campus make the news and then, to the public, become representative of the overall temperature among students. Just like social media amplifies “engaging” (read: emotion-provoking) content, traditional journalistic standards often do, too.
Reporter and scholar Nikole Hannah-Jones speaks for many of us lamenting the 39 journalists who have been killed thus far. Relatedly, I found a recent Jacobin story on the bombing of Palestinian journalists and their families to be a necessary if disturbing read.
February 24, 2022
Sanctions that the U.S. imposed on Russia in an attempt to avoid a full invasion of Ukraine made headlines in February 2022. The tweet accompanying the above headline from CBS News was critiqued for blaming ongoing economic issues on these relatively new sanctions — a specious argument that doesn’t even really reflect the story inside. But the headline does something else harmful: erasing Russia’s actions from the narrative.
The conflict is not just a “Ukraine crisis” and naming only Ukraine in headlines unduly places blame on the victims of Russian aggression. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the problem and headlines and reporting should be sure not to elide Russia’s actions and antagonism. The New York Times headline on the same topic below does this well.
March 3, 2022
Why does this CNN headline make Biden’s February 24, 2022 address sound like the climactic scene of an old Western movie? Adding dramatic flourish to reporting on a literal war is wholly unnecessary. But as researcher Hussein Kesvani points out below, it’s part of a larger pattern of platforms spreading news that triggers high emotions for engagement.
Whether they’d admit it or not, news and content producers respond to that engagement by creating more emotion-laden content. Editors should avoid framing all war-related stories as spectacle, like the Guardian did with their headline on the same speech below.
March 10, 2022
Rising gas prices due to disruptions in the global oil market thanks to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made many headlines, and for good reason. U.S. society, as many experience it, is built around cars. Expensive gas is a true financial problem for many families. There are many different ways to explain this event to audiences. Some local U.S. news organizations have run full steam into tracking the daily rise in prices like they’re election polls — as in, too aggressively and with too little context to be anything but emotionally triggering.
What communities need when faced with a collective problem is accurate framing, i.e. what the problem is, who is responsible for creating it, what solutions are possible, and who is responsible for solving it.
The above headline from CBS News addresses what the problem is but not where it came from. Who’s to blame, then? Whoever you want.
The Guardian headline above is a bit better. It addresses how Russia’s war on Ukraine is to blame — and accurately calls it Russia’s war.
Finally, this Fox Business headline goes a step further to explain the connection between (what it should call) Russia’s war on Ukraine and prices. That’s the context we like to see.
Below, from the Washington Post, we have another frame entirely: that the problem at hand is not gas prices themselves but how they will impact Democrats’ election chances. (That’s not to say the Post hasn’t covered the issue of prices for consumers; it’s just an example.) This story covers how President Biden decided to ban Russian oil to punish them for their violence and sought to publicly connect rising prices to Vladimir Putin.
But the headline could just as easily suggest that the strategy is, if not popular, at least understandable to many Americans who support Ukraine. After all, February 2022 polls showed Americans broadly support taking action to stop Russia’s attacks without direct military action. Calling the decision “politically risky” without clarifying the origin of the problem actually implies a more damning frame — Democrats chose a risky policy so they must be partially to blame for rising gas prices — before a reader even gets to the story.
This all, of course, is to say nothing about the complete lack of solutions presented in these examples. Rising gas prices present an opportunity for the U.S. to reconsider its dependence on fossil fuels, not only for the geopolitical implications but for its challenge to a livable Earth. It also presents the opportunity for the overlapping conversation of reliance on privatized transportation (with gas prices falling on consumers) over public investment in environmentally-friendly mass transit. The agenda-setting role of news media means greener solutions could be the core public narrative of this problem ahead of us, if we wanted it to be.
April 14, 2022
On April 12,2022, President Biden referred to Russia’s attacks on Ukraine as “genocide.” This is newsworthy because, as we’ve discussed in previous issues, “genocide” is a term with a legal definition via the International Criminal Court that prosecutes such crimes against humanity. Thus, world leaders and journalists alike are usually quite careful to use this term, since determining whether acts formally amount to genocide is a complex matter.
One of the headlines below isn’t necessarily better than the other but they do convey very different tones and different consequences for Biden’s statement. The first headline, below, comes from the Washington Post. It describes pretty plainly what Biden said, just regurgitating the fact.
The example below, however, from NPR, uses a different tone. The word “accuses” denotes charging one with a crime, in opposition to the more neutral “calls” used by WaPo. “Committing” in this context also has a denotation of criminality. (This is why advocates advise journalists against using the term “commits suicide.”) This combination implies the potential consequences of Biden’s words. Though he added that “we’ll let the lawyers decide,” a world leader choosing to use that term has a major impact on how others, including other leaders, interpret Russia’s attacks. NPR’s headline uses a few key words to quickly underline this impact.
October 12, 2023
When a long-term developing story breaks out, major news outlets will sometimes launch a page on their website that aggregates all of their articles on the topic. The name of that page is often found at the top of these stories, above the headline, in a spot some call the “eyebrow.” (News jargon is weird, I know.)
While reading this week, I noticed the “eyebrow” on the Washington Post’s page for news about Israel and Hamas read as follows:
Most frequently, I have seen this phrased as “Israel-Hamas War,” as with The New York Times’ own topic page, below.
Now, in the wake of devastating violence, I can understand why someone might read this section and think, “Who cares? Why does this matter?”
For starters, this is about accuracy. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu specifically named Hamas in his public statement declaring Israel was at war.
But this also matters because the hyphen linking the two entities in either headline signals that each is a “side” of the war in question, and thus implicitly assigns blame for horrific acts of terror. The difference between these two phrases is the difference between separating the acts of Hamas from Gazans and lumping them together.
“Israel-Hamas War” acknowledges the nuance that, though Hamas controls Gaza, it is a polarizing force that does not necessarily represent Gazans; there have not been legislative elections in Gaza since 2006. “Israel-Gaza War” on the other hand might imply that these two entities are on equal footing and the civilians of Gaza are party to the assault they now face. And to be clear, the density of Gaza means attacks on it have and will likely continue to lead to civilian casualties.
Sure, news media necessitates shorthand and we often describe wars past and present by the land represented, not their governments. Considering that long, complicated history and the condition of Gaza, I’d argue this situation requires far more sensitivity. I’d also go as far as to argue that any non-representative government that commits an act of war should be named separately from its people in coverage of the violence that follows. Good journalism requires context, especially when it comes to histories of power.
November 2, 2023
As the saying goes, “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Sadly, this rings true for journalists who haven’t learned the lessons of prior coverage and its criticisms.
Back in 2005, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, two wire service photos of the resulting crisis sparked a conversation on language and framing. The Los Angeles Times recounted the story in 2017:
“One from Associated Press photographer Dave Martin showed a young black man wading through water while holding a bag and a case of soda. The accompanying description stated that he was ‘looting.’ A second photo from Chris Graythen for Getty Images showed a similar scene, but this time it was a white couple clutching bags of food. Their actions were labeled as ‘finding.’”
The difference in these terms is the level of sympathy elicited for the subject. “Looting“ implies criminality while “finding” in this context implies innocently gathering goods for survival. Based on U.S. history, I think I can reasonably suggest systemic racism played a role in the labels given to each photo.
I use this example pretty frequently in my workshops on news and language. You may understand, then, why the headline from Politico below caused me dismay.
The humanitarian crisis in Gaza is well documented. More than 8,000 Palestinians have been killed in the past few weeks and innocent civilians are in dire need of aid. Using the word “loot,” traditionally defined as pillaging for the spoils of war, is an incredibly cynical and unsympathetic way to frame people stealing for survival.
I much prefer the simple rephrase used by CNN in the headline below. “Take” is a pretty neutral verb in this situation; it doesn’t imply criminality but does suggest the goods weren’t willingly given. The use of “basics” underlines the life-sustaining nature of the items people were searching for.
The final example below, from the BBC, I think does the best job of illustrating how dire the situation truly is. It uses the phrase “break into” to imply that the actions described may not have been lawful, but still manages to focus on the real story here: people are desperately searching for aid. This isn’t stealing for stealing’s sake — as we might think of with the word “looting.”
This headline doesn’t sensationalize the events it describes by centering crime. Its priorities are clear: audiences need to understand how bad things really are. It’s the difference between, “Look, these people committed a crime” and “Look, things are so bad these people had to commit a crime to survive.”
November 9, 2023
Framing is a somewhat nebulous concept, but it’s a critical one to understand as a media maker or consumer, particularly during times of high conflict. That’s because it isn’t just about the facts, but about how the facts are presented.
I like scholar David Tewksbury’s definition of framing best: “the verbal and visual information in an article that directly or implicitly suggests what the problem is about, how it can be addressed, and who is responsible for creating and solving it.”
A key part of this definition is the “information in an article.” What is included and what is excluded from a story are often of equal import.
For example: the headline above, from the Guardian, is pretty straightforward on its face; it is a brief summary of the U.S. Secretary of State’s recent statements. But when contrasted with the headline below, from the Washington Post, it’s clear the Guardian’s writer made a distinct choice in what to leave out of this frame.
The Guardian’s choice to exclude that Blinken said Gaza should be run by Palestinians could be simply due to space constraints and prioritizing Blinken’s full name, and of course the full article does express this context. But we all know no one can read every article they see in a day, so headlines remain vital, precious real estate for telling stories. Israel is a key ally of the U.S., so Blinken’s full perspective on how this conflict should end is pertinent information.
The Post’s headline writer made their own interesting choice as well by leaving out the word “Israel.” Perhaps the audience is meant to assume that the “re” in “reoccupied” implies that Israel would be the occupier again. However, I believe it’s still worth noting since there’s a big difference between post-conflict sovereignty for Palestinians and occupation by another non-Israel state.
Both headlines exhibit how subtle choices of what information is included in limited space can alter the salience of a news event.