The irreducible nuance of war reporting

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Jamie Dettmer is opinion editor at POLITICO Europe.

“A vulgar low Irishman, [who] sings a good song, drinks anyone’s brandy and water, and smokes as many cigars as a Jolly Good Fellow. He is just the sort of chap to get information, particularly out of youngsters.”

These were the words once used by a British soldier to describe celebrated 19th century correspondent William Russell. Famous for covering the Crimean War, Russell is often referred to as the first real “war correspondent” — a description he himself hated.

In fact, Russell wasn’t the first — others had come before — but his coverage had enormous public impact, as he exposed tactical debacles and logistics incompetence, the appalling conditions endured by British and allied troops, as well as the inadequacies of treatment for the wounded.

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His dramatic reporting is what persuaded Florence Nightingale to go to Constantinople to train nurses and organize care for the wounded. It also prompted Mary Seacole — the daughter of a Scottish army officer and a free Black businesswoman from Kingston, Jamaica — to offer her services to the British Army. And though rejected, she went to war nonetheless, acting as an independent frontline nurse, her service only belatedly lauded.

Russell’s reporting also prompted a public backlash against the conduct of the war, enraging the government, Queen Victoria and her consort Prince Albert, who bewailed how “the pen and ink of one miserable scribbler is despoiling the country.” Lord Raglan, commander of British forces in Crimea, even accused Russell of disclosing information potentially harmful to Britain and banned senior officers from speaking with him.

As Russell learned, the press has a difficult relationship with a government and army at war — and it’s especially tricky and anguishing when that government and army is one’s own and is locked in an existential conflict.

Last week, my POLITICO colleague Veronika Melkozerova movingly wrote about the dilemma Ukrainian journalists confront when covering the war launched against their country by Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We face a continual tension between holding the government to account, and not wanting the enemy to undermine us by exploiting bad news,” she noted.

Melkozerova was focused on a major corruption scandal that’s been breaking out in Ukraine, which so far has led to the sacking of the country’s deputy defense minister over a military catering contract, triggering a government shake-up. Other probes have followed. “The first thought that came to my mind was: ‘Should I write about this for foreigners? Will it make them stop supporting us?’” she wrote.

Ukrainian journalist Yuriy Nikolov, who broke the story, opened his scoop with the words: “I apologize in advance to the readers for the pain caused.” He has said he considered dodging publication and that he went to the authorities informing them of the graft, hoping they would deal with the matter and that the poisoned chalice would pass him by.

Nikolov didn’t fail the test of being a professional reporter.

Journalists, if true to their vocation, have no choice but to publish and be damned. The essential role of media is to report without fear or favor, and if it doesn’t do so, it risks credibility, corrodes public trust and sows suspicion about what else is being held back.

Rescuers remove debris to search for survivors at a destroyed apartment building hit by a rocket during the night in downtown Kramatorsk on February 1, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine | Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

This applies to the international media — as well as the Ukrainian press.

And when this war is over, and the journalism schools and media scholars go to work weighing the coverage, what will they find? Will they offer a passing grade, or will they highlight instances of when the Western media allowed, at times, its sympathy with the Ukrainian cause — a sympathy I fully share — to overlook matters it shouldn’t have and under-report some things while over-reporting others?

Take this week, for example. Ukraine is a signatory to the 1997 Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention — a treaty prohibiting any use of antipersonnel mines — but on Tuesday, Human Rights Watch (HRW) researchers issued a report accusing the country’s forces of firing thousands of banned antipersonnel mines at Russian-occupied territory in last year’s savage battle for Izium, a city on the Donets River near Kharkiv.

“Ukrainian forces appear to have extensively scattered landmines around the Izium area, causing civilian casualties and posing an ongoing risk,” Steve Goose, HRW’s Arms Division director, said.

Goose also went out of his way to emphasize that Russian forces have used the banned mines across Ukraine since it invaded as well. In fact, in the past year, HRW has documented Russian use of antipersonnel landmines in three reports — although, of course, Moscow had shunned and never signed the treaty, which is telling in itself.

“Russian forces have repeatedly used antipersonnel mines and committed atrocities across the country, but this doesn’t justify Ukrainian use of these prohibited weapons,” Goose said.

The HRW report alleging Ukraine’s use of these mines received meager international media coverage — it certainly didn’t get front-page treatment and was only highlighted by Western public broadcasters, such as the BBC, Voice of America and NPR.

And there have been other instances of Western media under-reporting events or actions that reflect poorly on Ukrainian authorities, and which deservedly needed more attention.

In the first few months after Russia’s invasion, Ukrainian authorities arguably shrugged off their obligations under Article 13 of the Geneva Convention — prohibiting the display of prisoners and requiring jailers to shield them from “insults and public curiosity,” specifically making reference to the use and distribution of their images. Russian POWs were brought to press conferences to discuss the military invasion, and videos showing captured soldiers contacting relatives back in Russia were posted on social media sites.

Of course, Russia’s abuse of Article 13 has been even more egregious — exhibited Ukrainian POWs and captured foreign volunteers have appeared in horrible condition and have displayed signs of physical maltreatment.

Amnesty International publicly upbraided Kyiv for this breach — and behind-the-scenes, so too did the International Committee of the Red Cross. (Both have also complained about Russia’s breach of Article 13.) But Ukrainian officials pushed back, arguing the POWs spoke freely and were not cajoled. And many Western media outlets also ignored the prohibitions, using material from the press conferences for their reporting and, in effect, breaching the convention as well.

Academic examiners of Western coverage might also criticize the fact that while we regularly emphasize the staggeringly high estimated number of Russia’s casualties, there has been scant published reporting trying to establish the likely high numbers of Ukraine’s casualties. Like the Kremlin, Ukraine’s government is wary of divulging such information, as it’s understandably concerned about giving anything away that might undermine national morale or be useful for the Russia.

People walk on a destroyed bridge to cross a canal towards the disputed area in Bakhmut on February 1, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine | Yasuyoshi Chiba/AFP via Getty Images

And where is the follow-up on the highly disturbing videos — authenticated by the New York Times — apparently showing the execution of 11 surrendering Russian soldiers in the village of Makeyevka, Luhansk? The Ukrainian government has pledged to investigate the incident, but so far there’s been no outcome from the promised probe.

There’s also been little coverage of Ukrainian authorities slipping back on an amnesty promised by Kyiv, for Ukrainians from Russian-occupied territory in Donetsk and Luhansk who were forcibly recruited to fight for Russia. The Kyiv-based rights organization ZMINA has reported that Ukrainian authorities have, by default, been treating those forcibly mobilized as if they voluntarily enlisted, and some have been prosecuted and sentenced.

Ukrainian officials fume at critical news stories and, on occasion, have castigated reporters for falling into a Moscow propaganda trap. Understandably, they fear anything derogatory will be used against them to undermine Western support, and will be twisted and exploited by Russian propagandists.

They also bristle, again understandably, at anything that smacks of equivalence. Russia’s extensive and systemic war crimes, clearly endorsed by Russian leadership — from the callous (and documented) executions of Ukrainian noncombatants to the rapes and sexual abuse of Ukrainian women and even prepubescent girls, the pitiless missile strikes aimed at freezing the entire Ukrainian population, and the abuse of POWs — are gargantuan. And the long and terrifying list could go on.

But however uncomfortable — and regardless of whether it’s used for propaganda or twisted by a brutish aggressor employing tactics last seen in Europe during the Balkan wars and echoing the barbarities of the Nazis — the press is still duty bound to report.