According to the latest estimate from the United Nations, the Russia-Ukraine war has displaced 6.6 million people within Ukraine. It further has led to a recorded total of 6.3 million people crossing international borders from that nation to neighboring countries, including Poland and Moldova; and 13 million people are estimated to be stranded in dangerous places, or unable to leave for security reasons.
To address these intensifying humanitarian crises, the United Nations and other multilateral institutions must intervene to contain Russia and pave a path to a peaceful resolution. And it is the responsibility of media organizations across the globe to demand these institutions focus on this peace building.
But the mainstream Western media, especially in the U.S., are not too invested in the idea of peace. Much of their reporting entails tallying the losses on both sides and cheerleading approved shipments of materiel.
Authors Dr. Jake Lynch and Annabel McGoldrick define peace journalism as, “when editors and reporters make choices — of what to report, and how to report it — that create opportunities for society at large to consider and value non-violent responses to conflict.”
There is a choice available to journalists and media producers to reexamine war coverage with the intent to accurately communicate the value and toll of violence. This type of reporting isn’t open advocacy for peace, according to the Center for Global Peace Journalism and Lynch, but rather, “giving peace a chance.”
Peace journalism further aims to give voice to the voiceless, reject official propaganda, cover from all sides of a conflict, eschew oversimplifications, and lead discussions about solutions; these are some of the ways in which U.S. war reporting is failing by parroting U.S. intelligence and using sensational words and images.
Beyond the militaristic lens
In May, my colleague at Ithaca College, Dr. Patricia Zimmermann, wrote a piece on Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s appearance at the Cannes film festival. “Zelenskyy’s powerful speech on Zoom about the Russia-Ukraine war screened in the opening festival ceremonies with Tom Cruise’s ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ a $170 million dollar Hollywood blockbuster de facto heralding the U.S. military with zero sense of irony.”
Zimmermann described the fighter jets that spewed red, white, and blue overhead at the festival at the same time as Russian bombs landed on civilians in the East. And just as the blockbuster film celebrated the U.S. military, news media would praise the $40 billion aid package to Ukraine approved two days later.
The leading dissenting voice of our times, Noam Chomsky, pointed out in a recent interview how, in service of a heroic narrative, U.S. media buried Zelenskyy’s openness to the possibility of negotiation:
If you look at the media coverage, Zelenskyy’s very clear, explicit, serious statements about what could be a political settlement — crucially, neutralization of Ukraine — those have been literally suppressed for a long period, then sidelined in favor of heroic, Winston Churchill impersonations by Congressman, others casting Zelenskyy in that mold…He’s made it pretty clear that he cares about whether Ukraine survives, whether Ukrainians survive, and has therefore put forth a series of reasonable proposals that could well be the basis for negotiation.
Where few calls for peace are found in corporate journalism, stories instead proliferate reciting intelligence from the U.S. government, reporting on Russian military purchases, and cheering on further military aid from the U.S. to Ukraine. The Biden administration announced on August 24 that it would send another $3 billion in military aid, supplementing the current total of $53.6 billion since March. There are additional preparations as of September 27 to send another arms package of $1.1 billion. As Other commentators have pointed out, a long-term commitment to funding war does not encourage a peaceful outcome.
Columbia Journalism Review’s Jon Allsop highlighted some examples of irresponsible and brazenly racist wartime reporting. This pattern of coverage consistently reminded us of the age-old criticism that U.S. networks rely on so-called “expert” pundits with professional and financial ties to the U.S. national security establishment and defense industry, and rarely give a platform to longstanding anti-war activists. That patten continues during the Ukraine war.
These pundits are not experts, as Allsop explained, “in the sense that media people often understand that word—an authority figure who can help put an issue or debate in its proper context—as much as actors often steeped in a particular foreign-policy worldview….it is not our job to present asymmetrical policies as two equal sides of a coin or to hide the ramifications of those policies behind euphemistic language.”
No-fly zones and nukes
As Russia escalated the war earlier this year, Ukrainian leaders and officials in U.S. foreign policy have issued calls for a NATO “no-fly zone” over Ukraine, sometimes accompanied by language like “humanitarian” that sounds non-confrontational. But such an act would “entail direct military confrontation with a major nuclear power,” reminded Allsop. The Biden administration and politicians across the political spectrum oppose a no-fly zone for fear of escalation, but journalists have often used the term without providing enough context. This presents a danger, as polls show public support for a no-fly zone drops when it’s described as an act of war.
Amid his warmongering in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin introduced the possibility of using nuclear weapons, and the prospect has crept into media discussion without due concern. For instance, The Economist ran the headline, “A New Era: Why the War in Ukraine Makes Nuclear Conflict More Likely.” The direction of this conversation raises the concern that mainstream media has been mentioning the use of nuclear weapons while neglecting to discuss how to avoid it.
Much has been said about disinformation as an instrument of war. Russian propaganda has been relentless, but questions have also been raised about Western media. When they deny NATO’s culpability in stoking the flames of war in Ukraine, Americans are left unaware of their most effective tool in preventing further crisis: pressuring their own government to join the negotiating table. Is prolonging the war in Ukraine indefinitely the only option?
Reading corporate war coverage
Russian media has no alternative to repeating the official line, whereas Western media does, but still, U.S. media chooses to parrot NATO and Pentagon reports uncritically. And although Western media has exposed military deception in the “Pentagon Papers” and the “Afghan Papers,” it remains intent on amplifying official narratives.
Media critic Janine Jackson has rightly noted that “the current crisis with the US and Russia about Ukraine is a test of many things, not least news media’s ability and willingness to disengage themselves from these frozen narratives…and from the devastating idea that diplomacy is weakness, and massive violence, or threats of massive violence, are the best way to address conflict.”
Writer Bryce Greene in an interview with Jackson provided context for Russia’s invasion that is altogether absent from mainstream coverage, which instead wonders at Putin’s intentions or warns of his ambitions to reconquer Soviet territories. “You should also ask yourself, who are the sources being utilized in this story?” Greene said. “Very often you’ll see a story that says ‘according to US intelligence’ or ‘according to this State Department official’ or ‘according to someone in the government.’” But between U.S. officials and U.S. media, said Greene, “there’s a well-documented and very extensive history of the government lying to the public. The classic example, WMD.”
The ongoing war in Ukraine provides an opportunity for the media to shed its valorization of militaries and instead focus on the suffering of displaced and stranded Ukrainians. By placing people, and not tanks, at the center of reporting and editorial frames, they will accomplish the fundamental requirement of journalism: public interest.