Predictably, the Russian government is trying to control the flow of information about the ongoing military operations in Ukraine. Vladimir Putin can count on some percentage of fellow citizens who support his view of Russian history and share his fear of NATO and of American bases in their backyard.
Still, the military operation is unfolding more slowly than he may have expected, the number of Russian casualties is mounting, and pictures of Ukrainian resistance fighters, refugees, and bombed out neighborhoods fill the TV screens all around the globe. Censorship of both foreign and Russian media is an old, familiar, easily employed tool.
In the age of the internet, however, old tools do not work very well. Technology-savvy people, including thousands of young Russians, know how to circumvent filters and blocks.
Western media reporting on the invasion of Ukraine are much more effective in communicating their versions of events to viewers and readers across the globe. They are not hampered by censorship, whether imposed by governments or by corporate owners. They use a communication tool that is built into their professional training and culture. Experienced reporters as well as novices use this tool, most of the time unconsciously, and without malice.
The 21st century tool, far more effective than shutting down press rooms and internet sites. is the 24-hour news cycle. To keep readers and viewers interested, the networks have to offer a steady stream of “breaking news.” Because real “breaking news” are not likely to occur around the clock seven days a week, news executives look for a steady stream of eye-catching shots and moving human interest stories. The easiest stories are told by people on the front lines of a conflict, preferably by English-speaking local leaders, fighters or refugees.
Two things then happen. One, networks that should offer different accounts of events on the ground simply duplicate each other’s efforts., often interviewing the same people. Two, very little effort goes into gathering and interpreting relevant background information. The situation in Ukraine illuminates both a surplus of moving and duplicative human interest stories and a dearth of background information. For example, none of the networks have explored and explained the implications of newly installed American (not NATO) bases in Poland, of the rise of right-wing populist governments in Eastern Europe, to say nothing of the checkered past of post-1992 Ukrainian leaders.
The end result? Lots of high-risk reporting from the front lines of the conflict, disturbing pictures, narratives of fear, pain and despair. And almost no analysis of how we got where we are or of the options for getting Ukraine and the rest of the world to a better place. Does lack of censorship mean free media? Yes. But informative and impactful media? Not so much.