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Conference: Media in a political context: watchdog or propaganda instrument

December 2, 2014

Summary: Journalism is facing a crisis – there is much less concern about context in journalism: we are in a world of open source information: corporate, state/govt, journalism and media, citizen’s voice. Global broadcasting is evolving and distinctions are as blurred as ever, although TV is still central, despite social media.  In the context of the Russia/Ukraine conflict, Information Operations can be more effective than military action. Russian successes are attributable to very modern, sophisticated media processes. The notion of “Hybrid warfare” includes the effective use of myths and history (eg Ukraine government is “fascist”).  Dejevsky felt in the Ukraine – in 30 years of journalism she had never experienced a situation “where versions are so diametrically opposed”. This sort of conflict presents significant difficulties for journalists – not being able to identify specific military hardware types, needing a degree of sensitivity to civil conflicts (where opposing groups have a very similar background) and historical background.

“Anyone can tell their story. But it’s only journalism if its ethical”.

Nov, SIPRI conf (2)I attended a thought-provoking debate about the role of the media in conflict, focusing on the Russia/Ukraine conflict on 24 November 2014.  It was co-hosted by SIPRI and Stockholm University

Session 1: The media and broadcast responsibility in a sensitive security environment
Session 2: Professional standards in news and current affairs journalism
The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, in conjunction with Stockholm University held a seminar concerning the role of the media during conflict. There were four speakers:
• Alexa Robertson (Stockholm University Dept of Media Studies)
• Dr Oleksiy Melnyk (Ukrainian Centre for Economic and Political Studies, Kiev)
• Mary Dejevsky (journalist with The Independent)
• Aidan White (Ethnical Journalism Network)

Key points:

Robertson:
Robertson gave an introduction to some of the key themes: global broadcasting is evolving and “journalism” now competing with Youtube and governments. Distinctions are as blurred as ever but TV is central, despite social media. Conflict draws heavily on visual imagery/colours and political actors of all kinds are all “into” controlling the information flow and the narrative (the latter is harder). The idea of “Strategic Narrative” conflicts with objective reporting – but it is an important tool for governments (and others) as it helps to navigate in a fast-moving world
Journalism skills are declining in the West – but elsewhere “counter-media hegemony” with other news outlets (Al Jazeera, RT) trying to give alternative voices. Russia Today was established in 2005. It has a staff of 2,000 with an average age of 25 The aim is to improve the image of Russia abroad
• McPhail “electronic colonialism”, war as “infotainment” (Thussn)
• Media is “as important as traditional diplomacy and economic strength” – “soft power”
• Propaganda – spinning the war – RT comparable to Fox News ( and we shouldn’t laugh at either – what they do is serious…)
Melnyk (Role of propaganda in the Ukraine conflict):
Mylnyk wondered whether the Kremlin had already achieved most of its goals – Ukraine probably accepts that Crimea is lost for now. Russian IO and propaganda have played a crucial role by preparing the ground (this perhaps began 2 years ago?). IO is sometimes more effective than military action – Russian success attributable to very modern, sophisticated media processes – aiming at domestic and international audiences. There is some Ukraine propaganda operates but no resources, planning or appetite.
Russia has a state monopoly over information space – state TV accounts for 85% of the information available in Russia, mixing truth, partial truth and lies – 86% of Russians supported the annexation of Crimea. The notion of “Hybrid warfare” includes the effective use of myths:
o the government in Ukraine is “fascist”
o Ukraine is divided
o The Right Sector is huge
• “Stopfake” website arose to counter this
Dejevsky:
Ukraine – in 30 years of journalism she had never experienced a situation “where versions are so diametrically opposed”. In Feb 2014, BBC, Sky, German media completely opposite to Russia media view – an unprecedented lack of common ground. There as been a build up of the idea that the “West” was telling the truth and Russia was putting out propaganda – the West assumes the worst about Russia.
But residents in E Ukraine were genuinely scared of the new Kiev government – it was not true that the situation in E Ukr was all the result of Russian propaganda – there was a pro-Russian bedrock in the first place. Information has always been a weapon of war – Kiev also puts out propaganda – and Russian propaganda clearly not that effective – if it was, we wouldn’t be talking about it. Russia has not won the propaganda war
There are many examples where we still do not really know what happened:
o Snipers in Maidan – provocateurs? (Estonian govt claim pro-EU snipers)
o Odessa fire, 2nd May
o MH-17
o Russ military convoy “destroyed” – no evidence – may have been an attempt to draw in the US?
There are difficulties for journalists – not able to identify specific military hardware types, journalists need a degree of sensitivity to civil conflicts (where opposing groups have a very similar background). Journalists need historical background – the “fascist” issue arose very quickly. There is also the risk of crucial mistranslation/misinterpretation of key words and sentences.
White:
“Truth about war is only ever discovered after the last shot is fired” – the importance of journalism has never been greater – declining confidence on international organisations – it evokes the 1930s. But journalism is facing a crisis –there is much less concern about context in journalism: we are in a world of open source information: corporate, state/govt, journalism and media, citizen’s voice. Journalism in decline, investigative – the rise of “paid for” content. In Rwanda we saw the use of “hate media”. Journalistic principles are key:
o Use of fact-based info
o Show humanity
o Independent/impartial
o Transparency and accountability
• “Anyone can tell their story. But it’s only journalism if its ethical”

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. December 2, 2014 2:06 pm

    Hmm. Who’s ‘facts’? ‘Ethical’, like beautiful, may be in the eye of the beholder. We all have our biases, and even the most ‘objective’ reporter cannot get outside of his/her bias. It would be like standing outside of oneself. Some people (I count you as one) seem aware of their own bias, or that at least acknowledge they have one, giving the reader a chance to weight the evidence presented in light of this. Thanks for the article. I thought of attending SIPRI, but stuff happened.

  2. December 2, 2014 9:51 pm

    Hi Ron, great to hear from you – and sorry I missed you up in the big city. Well, I was slightly surprised that there seemed to be some surprise at the notion that total objectivity might never be possible. Robert Stake said this (writing about the case study-based research) and I have used the line a couple of times in papers: “Subjectivity is not seen as a failing needing to be eliminated but as an essential of understanding”…

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