We accept it as axiomatic. The news industry must cover what’s important. But we forget two things: first, that it is a business. And second: there is no agreement in the world on what is most important, and any answer is necessarily subjective.
Many of us are conditioned to ignore the implications inherent in the fact that we are talking about a business. But the crisis is so great now that the implications can no longer be ignored.
I began my career as an international journalist in the early days after the Romanian revolution, when I had been sent to Bucharest to establish a bureau for the Associated Press, one of two major global news agencies. Under Ceausescu such offices had largely closed, and information was anyway not free and foreigners hardly came. I had never been to Romania before, but I spoke the language somewhat, because my parents had emigrated from Romania just before I was born.
In those days there were huge rallies against Ion Iliescu, right outside my apartment in the center of town.
For my part I thought I was invincible, because I was a foreign correspondent with an official blue ID from the foreign ministry. I just walked through the mob, even as it grew angry and armed police had arrived. Suddenly a man jumped out of the crowd, pointed to me and said “him” – and policemen started to beat me with their batons.
They ripped up my shirt and almost broke my leg as they threw me into a black wagon with no windows. The whole time I was shouting “I’m a foreign correspondent” – but in Romanian, and so no one believed me. The drunks arrested with me also started chanting, in Romanian, obviosuly, “we are all foreign correspondents.”
At the police station the arrestees were bashed on the head some more, but I managed slip away and find the captain and show him my card and got myself freed. I was battered and bruised but delighted, because it gave me a great story for a party that evening. It was a good night.
It also made the government nervous, and I was invited for an interview with Iliescu, which without my permission was filmed and aired on TV that night. For weeks thereafter people would stop me on the street on Bulevardul Balcescu and ask me to organize favors from Iliescu. It was a silly time, but a romantic and hopeful one, and a great moment to be a journalist.
But this is where the story gets more complicated. You see, we young journalists, in Romania and in the other countries that had freed themselves from communism, were telling ourselves a story too. And in that story the forces of good had won, and democracy was here to stay and capitalism would enrich the world and make everyone happy.
Political scientist Francis Fukayama had written a famous essay and book widely known as The End of History in which he argued, essentially, that the great historical discourse had been decided with finality in favor of liberal democracy.
Liberal democracy includes, of course, the freedom of the press. And my friends and I who arrived in Romania in 1990 brought with us this ideology, of the freedom of the press. The premise at the heart of it was that real journalism is critically important to the functioning of free societies and also free markets. We assumed, on the rare occasions we even thought about the money side, that this itself had a market, because everyone will fall in love with being given the unvarnished facts by storytellers who are not political activists and not trying to sell you Coca Cola.
We were a little bit naïve.
First of all, liberal democracy is at the moment on the decline around the world. Authoritarian states are on the rise, by every indicator.
Secondly, because journalism began failing as a business.
In most cases, with a few exceptions like the BBC and other public broadcasters, the content needs to be interesting enough for somebody to make money – either through advertisers wanting the big audience or via consumers being compelled to somehow directly pay.
Giving the audience what it wants sounds democratic, and non-elitist. But what if much of the public prefers nonsense and scandal? The paradox is that many news consumers distrust the news because of superficiality and clickbait – but if not for those things they themselves are bored by the news, and they drift away to TikTok.
We once couldn’t be exactly sure what people were reading or watching. We knew which newspapers were being bought, but that was about it. Now, in the digital era, we know exactly. We know how far down the page they scroll, and the time spent on the article or video, and where their mouse wandered.
At the same time, technology of course also vastly elevated and simplified the logistics of journalism.
Back then, we would write our stories on a small computer and send it via something called a telex. It would rattle out the characters via a physical land cable into an office in Vienna where other journalists would feed it into an actual AP computer system and send stories to subscriber newspapers at 300 baud speed which means a few characters per second. With photographs, transmission units were rare and expensive and we would often hand films to random tourists at Otopeni airport and hope they would carry them to Paris where they would be fed into more machines. As for video – there was no video.
Now none of this is a problem, but here’s the unpleasant surprise. Even as it helped the media collect and distribute information technology has hammered the business model by removing the barrier to entry and flooding the zone with content. Today our kids can publish anything in text, video and text instantly via social media to everyone on the planet. That’s good for them, maybe, but terrible for those who depend on a captive audience for serious things.
The impact on coverage is that with its business model in collapse the news industry is less able to make coverage decisions that do not bring them audiences.
US newsroom jobs have fallen by over a quarter since 2008. But that includes the rise in digital-only properties – like Axios or Vox or Huffington Post. So if you look at jobs in the legacy newspapers, most have been lost: the decline between 2008 and 2019 was 51%. The reason for this is clear: when I was starting off media had four revenue streams: newsstand sales, classified sections for finding jobs or apartments, subscriptions, and ads. But then consumption moved online and ads go to where there is scale. No publication can compete with the global scale of consumer properties not dependent on particular content, from social media to search engines to games to ecommerce sites. The result is visible in the numbers: the newspaper industry last year brought in just under $10b from advertising of which about half was digital; that’s a fifth of what it was, and while the digital portion is projected to grow slightly print ads will collapse. Google, meanwhile, brought in over $200b in digital ad revenue. Google and Facebook together account for almost three-quarters of the digital advertising total, double their share compared to five years ago.
Moreover, the dwindling number of reporters in the US earn less: Pew found in 2020 that the average reporter with a college degree earned 17% less than the average college graduate who was working in other industries.
In short, the media is in a major crisis and in most cases can no longer afford to throw money at coverage that does not earn it money — that people do not want to read and see.
And what do people want to read and see? Generally, it is what’s close to them – what directly affects their lives. When times are tough and budgets are tight that’s the priority. So the foreign correspondent industry has severely retrenched.
When I chaired the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem about 20 years ago, the member handbook contained hundreds of reporters and scores of emissary expats. Today there are a handful, numerically overwhelmed by locals. My hometown Phildelphia Inquirer no longer has a team there as it did then – not even one correspondent, or even a freelancer.
In the years after the Romanian revolution there were people here, in Bucharest not only from AP and Reuters and Agence France Press but also the Times of London, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Telegraph, Libre Belgique, Figaro, the Independent, the BBC, and on and on. Today most of those organizations no longer bother sending people to any but the top stories. Generally they rotate in and out of countries, and most by far are now local reporters and not foreign emissaries trained in journalism adjusted for the specific target audience.
Basically, there is now a huge dependency on the agencies, AP and Reuters and Bloomberg for financial news and perhaps AFP, and even those organizations in almost all cases have local people, not foreigners. And far fewer than before.
So the picture is that we arrive at the Ukraine story at a time when the media is devastated in its business model, and there is less inclination than before to throw resources at international news, and there are fewer reporters in the field.
This has made more acute than ever the question of whether the public – the audience, from whom in one way or another the funding will generally come – is interested in this expensive and dangerous coverage.
In the case of the Ukraine war, there has been an interesting dynamic. For sure there were elements of waning interest and the resultant declining coverage overall, compared to at the beginning. But the war has remained very much at the top of the news for a number of interesting reasons that don’t apply in all cases.
The Ukraine story, with ups and downs, has been consistently among the most popular stories at most sites in the UK and US in the past eight months, and was close to the only international story that was among top stories everywhere throughout the period since the invasion in February.
This begs a question: Why is Ukraine so interesting?
I’ll try to break it down.
First, it meets one of the main criteria for what makes people pay attention, which is a personal stake. More than many other wars it has exposed the degree to which the world is interconnected in this era. The war is linked to an energy crisis in Europe and even to rising costs in Britain – which is even not a direct recipient of Russian natural gas – and it has further hampered supply chains affected already by COVID and caused fears of a major food crisis in Africa and other places, and it is one of several reasons why pension funds in America are tanking, and there are even fears of nuclear conflict. Everyone feels affected.
Second, there have been surprises, which are as critical for maintaining interest in a news story as they are in a work of fiction – which this sometimes feels like. The major one, of course, has been Russia’s struggles and the very idea that Ukraine might somehow win the war.
Third, and very importantly for a news story in maintaining interest, there have, at least until recently, been constant developments, and some of them were as said surprising, so the narrative isn’t boring. The early gains and then embarrassments for Russia, which were a surprise, and the Bucha massacre and siege of Mariupol and the occupation of the Zaporizhzhia Nuclear Power Plant and the Ukrainian counteroffensive and the fake referendums in four regions and their annexation by Russia. It is not quite a war of attrition, the way Yemen for example had become.
Fourth, and forgive me if this sounds cynical, we are living in a celebrity age and this war is represented by two figures who have become A-list celebrities with qualities that come straight out of the movies. Vladimir Putin needs no introduction, but I’ll just say that we are talking about more than someone who has simply turned Russia from a developing democracy into a totalitarian state, which is already interesting. He’s also suspected of criminal skullduggery ranging from journalists dying in elevators to spies being poisoned in London sushi restaurants and oligarchs arrested on fake charges and others found dead in UK bathrooms and a previous Ukrainian president’s face disfigured and underwear poisoning of his political opponent — all the way to the widely believed accumulation of multi-billionaire level riches and the running of a bot army that helped Donald Trump get elected. It’s truly quite spectacular, and that’s just great for the news business.
Meanwhile, standing against him is a possibly even better story, one of the best political stories of all time. A KGB officers becoming a dictator is in a way what journalists call a dogbites-man story, meaning it is the natural way of things. But Volodymyr Zelensky is manbites-bog. Here is a comedian who not many years ago was prancing around in leotards on Dancing with the Stars, and he goes from playing a teacher who becomes president in a TV comedy to actually being elected president in reality. And it does hurt that in this David and Goliath story the David equivalent is Jewish as well, and this – in a country that has in the past been no stranger to anti-Semitism. The Putin story may be spectacular, but the Zelensky one is simply unbelievable. It is clear that there will be movies, and for now this aspects surely drives news interest.
All this almost writes itself, and makes the story appealing. But even once the decision has been made to cover it heavily, there are several factors that make it difficult.
To begin with, we are talking about a war, and it comes at a time when there is some exhaustion from wars that the elite foreign media has felt a need to cover. The rapid succession of the Yugoslav War in its various iterations, the Gulf war and especially the so-called forever wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the wars that erupted in the wake of the Arab Spring in Libya, Syria and Yemen – on top of all the other wars we should perhaps be covering in Africa and elsewhere – it has all left these diminishing and increasingly impoverished newsrooms depleted of energy. 1990 seems not like the end of history but the beginning of neverending conflict.
We see the result in journalist deaths.
Less than 20 journalist deaths were recorded in all of World War II, amazingly. The same thing is true in Korea. Even though at the time media support workers weren’t counted and we didn’t have journalism advocacy groups keeping count, the trend is unmistakable, both in absolute terms and relative to the civilian and combatant deaths.
Reporters Without Borders tallied 63 journalists killed in Vietnam over a 20-year period ending in 1975 – and that was a messy conflict with guerrilla aspects, massive bombardments, and urban terrorism. These included many Americans, French and Japanese especially. Dozens of journalists were killed in central America in the 1980s. At least 25 were killed in Bosnia alone during the Yugoslav wars. And then came the Iraq war, which was another level. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, at least 150 journalists and 54 media support workers were killed there, from the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 to the declared end of the war in December 2011. CPJ also found 78 journalists were killed in the Afghanistan war – four times more than in World War II.
One of them was my colleague Anja Niedringhaus, an photographer killed in an insider attack in which her colleague, the writer Kathy Gannon, was badly injured. That was on an election day trip to the provinces that I approved, along with several other executives. You see, Anja and Kathy were supposed to be under the protection of the local police, but one of then turned out to be a Taliban sympathizer who opened fire. I’ll never forget that feeling. The danger was known, you would have to be superhuman and almost robotic not to reflect on whether it was worth it. Of course we need to get out the story. But how much risk is acceptable? It becomes very subjective. There are no easy answers.
I’ll add that this all this comes at a time when the spread of media on the one hand and the brazenness of dictatorships on the other has also seen uptick in killings of journalists in general, often by their own governments. A 2020 study by the International Federation of journalists found that 2658 journalists were killed in the period since 1990. One of them, of coruse, was Putin critic Anna Politkovskaya in Russia, in 2006.
This is happening at a time when massive transparency on social media makes every death personal and reduces the willingness of the public in general to tolerate losses. Indeed, these kinds of events, these kinds of numbers, this kind of insanity in the world does risk breaking the will of the media to take more chances. And yet they have.
There are thousands of foreign journalists in Ukraine, 3,000 at the height of it by some estimates.
These included incredibly brave people like my friend Tim Judah, who reported for the Financial Times and other publications and insisted on staying in Kyiv through the worst of the danger, when it looked like the city might fall, or be bombed into ruins. That is courage for a guy who is around 60 and has a family worrying about him and you might think he really doesn’t need the aggravation.
I can report that he is fine and back in London, but at least eight have already been killed, according to RSF. Local and foreign. At least one was found by RSF to have been executed by Russian soldiers, and in general most are believed to have been killed by Russian fire. So for the media, in covering wars, we began to look for ways to mitigate the risks – and also the problem of physical access being impossible or barred. For one thing you can reach interview subjects more easily by cell phone of video calls. It also helps to mitigate other impediments to access, like sides in the conflict barring entry to various places. Tim reports that it is extremely difficult for anyone to get into Donetsk and the other Russian-held regions of Ukraine, for example.
Technology offers some solutions to the problem of access.
In the years of covering Islamic state, for example, there was no question of sending reporters into Mosul or Raqqa, under the control of murderous gangs of fanatics eager to chop off the heads of infidels. So we used drones, which helped create some truly amazing videos, like this AP video from Raqqa. We found ways to bring the story from insiders willing to take chances, like the so-called Mosul Eye, a secret blogger whose identity was revealed only after the war, in an award-winning story by AP. We used citizen journalism. That means we accept materials from people in the field, freelancers who volunteered or more usually locals who have a personal stake in what happens – but also who might conceivably be lying or misrepresenting themselves.
This has led to a new subfield in journalism known as verification – the complex effort of trying to figure out whether video of an attack was really filed yesterday, whether the hostages are really in the location that is claimed, whether the victims of a chemical attack by their own government are real and not actors, whether an image was not photoshopped or misleadingly repurposed. It is a tradeoff between trying to get the story out in safe ways and taking the risk of disinformation being spread in an instant across the glove.
Another difficulty in covering this war, which is not unique but fairly rare, is that journalists can only cover one of the sides. Ukraine has solid coverage and many journalists – but Russia itself is little covered, and as said the Russian-held regions of Ukraine prevent most journalists from going in.
The story is also difficult to cover credibly because of several factors that are not unique at all, but can be confounding nonetheless.
We are dealing with totally clashing narratives. It is not just a disagreement about whether taxes should be raised or lowered – the two sides do not seem to be seeing the same reality.
We see versions of this in Israel and Palestine as well as with the Democrats and Republicans in America. Journalism struggles with this phenomenon. The easiest thing is to present both sides, but in some situations this flirts with a phenomenon that has become known as bothsidesim. This refers to presenting both sides even when to do so is to imply an equal validity that is not there – a false equivalence.
A true clash of narratives confronts journalists with one of the main difficulties of engineering genuinely fair reporting. Which facts do we present? There are many salient facts about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – or about the US-China trade disputes – but how to fit all of them into 1000 words? In the selection of the facts itself may lie subjectivity, and a preference for one of the narratives – perhaps implied, perhaps subconscious.
In the case of Ukraine, lending importance in a 1000-word general article to the existence of far-right elements in the Azov Brigade – which are a key foundation of Russia’s claim of “Nazification” in Ukraine – would be a choice that is a pro-Russia choice. Spending 80% of the available space on the massacre at Bucha would be a pro-Ukrainian choice. Both are choices based on facts, yet both are political.
Moreover, even if you wanted to stick to a balanced presentation of just key facts, there is disinformation everywhere (though far more fake accounts and bots on the Russian side, the sociel media sentiment firm Cyabra reports).
Of course, one of the two sides is now perceived as lacking all credibility. There are very few people in the world outside Russia who are inclined to believe that Putin speaks any truth. Some still support or admire him, but still consider him a master deceiver.
This relates to problem number three, which is that there is no way of knowing what is the true state of public opinion in Russia. We have anecdotal evidence, and people still speak on the phone. But it is clear that the opponents of the war mostly are fearful of expressing themselves. Moreover, people in the countryside especially are largely in the dark – consuming only the basest regime propaganda.
Despotic countries like Russia control narratives through direct ownership or indirect control of most or all of the local media. And they also crack down on social media and police what appears there, punishing citizens for disloyalty. There is also the modern equivalent of jamming radio broadcasts: blocking certain addresses on the internet. This, combined with the legal sanctions again real journalism in place now in Russia, makes Russia essentially a no-journalism zone; many local and foreign reporters have simply left.
Ukraine is not a perfect democracy, but it tries. Despite corruption and cronyism, and the concentration of power, it has aspirations to be a Western style democracy.
Moreover, much of Russia’s activity in Ukraine will appear to Western journalists as simply evil. The massacres, the targeting of civilian populations in general, and especially perhaps the on-again, off-again threats to bring about a nuclear accident or to use nuclear weapons – threats which broke a taboo that had been in place since the dawn of the nuclear age. It might cause journalists to forget to note that there actually are parts of the Russian narrative that might be worth considering.
To begin with, the internal borders of the Soviet Union were purposely designed to create a chaotic mix of ethnicities, and one could argue they need not be treated as sacred. There is little sympathy right now in the West for changing borders – but that doesn’t mean that there aren’t parts of Ukraine which, if not for decisions by dictatorial Soviet leaders, could certainly be in Russia. Understanding this does not imply justified the war crimes.
Second, it is not insane for Russia to want Ukraine to not be in NATO. Sure, Ukraine is independent, but so are Mexico and Canada. What would the United States have done if either of these countries had wanted to align with the Soviets or even today’s Russia? It would not have invaded and killed tens of thousands of people, but the opposition would have been there. The question becomes whether we accept that Russia is a power that can try to prevent inconvenient alliances by its immediate neighbors – especially since the West did offer Russia assurances that NATO would not expand westward.
That’s an open question – the acceptable role of Russia. It is currently such a horribly run country that most observers think it must be tamed. And it only has 2% of the world’s GDP, compared to a third for the US. But it is a major nuclear power, a major civilization and the largest landmass in the world.
The media has also stumbled in other ways. The most famous, perhaps, was from CBS correspondent Charlie D’Agata who went viral after he said on air that the war in Ukraine was different to those in Iraq and Afghanistan because the nation is “civilized.” That was widely derided as a racist statement.
What’s the lesson of all this?
In Ukraine as elsewhere, we need more than “just the facts.” As the world becomes more complex, my own view is that the media has an increasingly critical role in helping people understand how things connect – so called connect-the-dots journalism.
The same data I mentioned before shows clearly that people are increasingly turning to media for analysis and opinion. Note in the above table, about interaction with the various sections of the New York Times, the Opinion section is about twice as popular as the World News section.
And, indeed, the news media has been very important in driving the central debate on the question of Ukraine.
On the one hand, there is the idea that the world might give Putin a face-saving way out and concede the Russian-populated areas of the country to Russia, and in general showing some understanding of Russia’s position if not support for its war behavior.
On the other, there is the narrative that a dictator can never be appeased and the only way to avoid aggression towards the Baltics, Poland and also Romania is to call Putin’s bluff and give not an inch.
Which side wins this debate – being largely carried out in the mainstream news media – could have a critical impact not just on the war, but on all the other issues emanating from it, including the security of Europe and the economy of the world.
Yet the debate must be carried out on a foundation of facts and truth.
It remains as true now as before: Journalism is critical to the functioning of open societies and free markets; foreign correspondents are the central nervous system of the machine that produces and delivers the rough draft of global history. But this critical industry is in an existential crisis and has not yet found the answers to how it might survive.
The Ukraine war arrived in the middle of this crisis – a perfect storm hitting the media’s pain points. So far, reporters still got the essence out, perhaps even beyond what the pure market has demanded.
The world is imperfect. What we can hope to produce – and here I am paraphrasing the great Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein, is the best obtainable version of the truth.
BUCHAREST, 3 NOVEMBER 2022