Coverage of the Ukraine Stereotyped and Unbalanced?

Press Photographer

The Crimean crisis has generated self-doubt in the German media: is the coverage stereotyped? Can journalists carry out their tasks differently – and if so, how?

In the beginning, everything happened very quickly: in early 2014 the Crimea began seething, and the media reported every few minutes on the unexpected conflict in the Ukraine. Reporters were sent en masse to the hotspot to explain to Germans what was going on in the eastern part of the continent. A few weeks later, the German media discovered a quite different aspect of the crisis: they began reporting about their own reporting.

Critical voices were raised: coverage of the events in many media was stereotyped, anti-Russian. The figure of Vladimir Putin, it was urged, had been reduced to the image of an unscrupulous power politician; his opponents were the good guys in the conflict. “In much of the coverage”, says the media researcher Uwe Krüger of the University of Leipzig, “I see a pro-Western bias, which shows little interest in the dark side of the West and the pro-Western actors in the Ukraine. Although this hasn’t been completely swept under the carpet, the zeal of most German reporters to explain the situation has been directed to other things.”

Ukrainians and Russians in one team

What do the journalists reporting from the Ukraine say in response to this? Golineh Atai, who reports from the crisis region for the public service broadcaster ARD, sees things differently: “I think this criticism is largely unwarranted. We’ve certainly depicted the Ukrainian crisis in a pluralistic way; we’ve been talking for months with Ukrainians of various ages, from various regions and walks of life, and with various political views”. Atai has experience: for her coverage from the Egyptian capital Cairo and the Ukraine, she was awarded the prestigious German Hanns Joachim Friedrichs Prize in 2014. She seeks to work together with the most different possible people in the country. “I’ve always found it to be fruitful to have a Ukrainian and a Russian on the same team – for example, as producer, translator or source of information. In one of my teams I had an east Ukrainian driver and a west Ukrainian cameraman. A great combination!” ARD, for which Atai works, is one of the largest and financially strongest German broadcasters. Of such possibilities for on-the-spot research as she enjoys many freelance reporters can only dream.

Cuts promote bias

For years now there have been cuts in foreign correspondence. Permanent foreign correspondent positions have become rarer; more and more often reporters are sent to the relevant regions only once a conflict has already broken out. Without much prior knowledge, but under great time pressure, they are expected to deliver news and opinions. As a result, the risk of bias increases: “Research and reflection need time. If things must go quickly, the media tend to be filled with already available information and pre-cut patterns of thought”, says media researcher Uwe Krüger. Golineh Atai is familiar with such difficult conditions: “When I had to report from Donetsk about what was happening in Odessa when pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian demonstrators attacked one another, and over the forty people died in the fighting. During and immediately after the tragedy I had no other sources than the descriptions by eye-witnesses personally known to my team and by journalist colleagues whom I knew well”.

Keeping a critical eye

In such situations the only recourse left the journalist is to keep his own bias in view. “Our perception is conditioned”, says Atai. “The same thing seen from different perspectives can be perceived very differently. It’s therefore good for journalists to keep a critical eye not only on external events but also on his own views. How do I see the world? What influences me and my judgements? By observing myself and my conditioning, I can discover a great deal – for example, how unconscious mental pictures and stereotypes influence my reporting.”

Not everyone gives German journalists in the Ukraine credit for so much self-reflection and conscientiousness. “My advice is to maintain a fundamental scepticism”, says Uwe Krüger. “It’s a good idea to compare many media sources, established ones and alternative one, domestic and foreign.” For those who feel that journalists are giving them one-sided information, there remains only one option: to research matters themselves as thoroughly as possible.