War on Ukraine: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated July 2022

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about reporting on the war on Ukraine 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.

Must-Reads

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.

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.

Critical Voices

Pointing out racist/classist double standards in how Western media and governments respond to war in Europe vs the rest of the world is not "hijacking" the moment to shift focus elsewhere. It's demanding that this humanitarianism be extended to all people regardless of background

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.

The reason people don’t empathize with refugees from non white nations is that they see war and destruction as part of those nations’ culture when in fact war is the culture of the aggressor

Stereotypes like comedian Mohanad Elshieky describes come from many places, news media included. “War is the culture of the aggressor” is the key here.

Secondly, and this is important students. Focus on the language. Whereas in certain Muslim countries, individuals taking up arms to defend their sovereignty makes them armed insurgents. In Europe, they are scared citizens fighting for their liberty, which is of course a right!

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?

6700 protesters arrested in Russia for protesting the war is obvious evidence of an authoritarian police state where dissent is not allowed but 10,000 Black Lives Matter protesters arrested in the US is obviously just serving and protecting.

To be U.S.-centric for a second: journalist Katelyn Burns brings up another apt comparison for the double standard of coverage.

One reason "no-fly zone" polls well, I think, is that the name refers to a great outcome while concealing a terrible process. Everybody should want Ukraine to be a zone where Russian planes don't fly. But "no-fly zone" practically refers to the U.S. engaging Russia in warfare.

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.

Reframing Headlines

February 24, 2022

How the Ukraine crisis is already hitting Americans' wallets

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.

Russia Is Sowing Conflict in Ukraine. What Does That Mean for the U.S. Economy?

 

March 3, 2022

Biden wages first showdown of new Cold War-style duel with Russia

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.

memeification, the marvel-isation, the spectacle of an ongoing war rendered as entertainment etc. This is less about a lack of empathy or understanding of human suffering, and far more indicative of platforms doing what they were designed to do in producing everything as content

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.

‘Putin chose this war,’ Biden says as he announces new sanctions – US politics as it happened

 

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.

Americans are paying dearly for gas as prices reach fresh highs

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.

Soaring gas prices are a cost of Russia’s war – and Britain can’t avoid them

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.

Gas prices above $4 per gallon as Russia-Ukraine war impacts supply, disrupting global market

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.

Democrats embrace politically risky strategy on rising gas prices

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.

Politicians are willing to pay the price of supporting Ukraine as higher gas costs bite consumers
The above headline from CNN, in contrast, is a more responsible take on the same problem frame. It underlines the origin of rising prices without presupposing what the political costs will be or for whom.

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.

Biden accuses Putin of committing a 'genocide' in Ukraine