Ukraine may be a ‘modern war,’ but its most powerful moments come from traditional journalism

The Associated Press photograph of a pregnant, badly wounded woman being carried on a stretcher from a maternity hospital in Mariupol distilled the Russian ruthlessness and Ukrainian civilian suffering in one image like nothing else I have seen.
“It might be the most striking photo of the war so far in Ukraine,” Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones wrote of the photo taken by Ukrainian photographer Evgeniy Maloletka.

Mstyslav Chernov, a Ukrainian AP reporter, said that the woman and her baby subsequently died with the mother crying out, “Kill me now,” as she realized she was losing her child.

Both the photograph and AP’s reporting are reminders of how much skilled and focused reporting and photography still matter. It’s not so much new technology that is touching our hearts and souls as it is the effort of reporters and photographers doing what they have been doing for the last century in bearing witness and framing and telling what they saw in ways that rock our souls. As much as we like to focus on what’s new in media, information and war coverage in our analyses, we should not forget what is old and can still be great in battlefield journalism.

“I think this is the first big war in the digital age that has galvanized Americans’ attention, and there’s a quantum leap in the toys and tools journalists are using since the last big American war in 2003 in Iraq,” said Mark Feldstein, professor of broadcast journalism at University of Maryland, College Park. “But all of this sophisticated technology still relies on the basic journalistic values of accuracy, verification, and fairness. Journalists still gather news piece by piece, often through dogged shoe leather reporting, interviewing witnesses, sifting through information, questioning, it, testing it, authenticating it — and then summarizing, synthesizing and analyzing it all in a clear and concise way to keep the public informed.”

David Leonhardt led his New York Times “The Morning” newsletter Thursday with praise for and a long excerpt from the AP’s reporting out of Mariupol.

“Since the war began, two of the few working journalists in Mariupol have been Mstylsav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka of the Associated Press,” Leonhardt wrote. “My colleagues and I were deeply affected by their dispatch, and we’re turning over the lead section of today’s newsletter to an excerpt from it.”

The dispatch included this passage describing a ditch where the bodies of dead children were being buried.

“There’s the 18-month-old Kirill, whose shrapnel wound to the head proved too much for his little toddler’s body. There’s 16-year-old Iliya, whose legs were blown up in an explosion during a soccer game at a school field. There’s the girl no older than 6 who wore pajamas with cartoon unicorns and who was among the first of Mariupol’s children to die from a Russian shell.”

The stark but poetic writing — juxtaposing the innocence and vulnerability of childhood with the brutality and cold cruelty of war — feels like it is straight out of “A Treasury of Great Reporting: ‘Literature Under Pressure’ from the Sixteenth Century to Our Time,” a touchstone collection published in 1949 and used in journalism schools around the world since.

Dead bodies are placed into a mass grave on the outskirts of Mariupol, Ukraine, Wednesday, March 9, 2022 as people cannot bury their dead because of the heavy shelling by Russian forces. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

One of the most encouraging media developments in Ukraine coverage is how much great traditional coverage we are seeing.

What is more traditional in war coverage than a powerful picture on the front page of The New York Times?

Early in the war, Lynsey Addario provided that with the image of a woman and her two children lying dead in the street in Irpin, the victims of a mortar attack on Ukrainians trying to flee the city. The image and the Times’ placement of it on the front page drove the war in Ukraine to the front of American consciousness like nothing on social media has been able to do.

Nor is the prominence of traditional media limited to photographs and battlefield dispatches.

The early scenes on cable TV of correspondents like CNN’s Clarissa Ward in subway stations interviewing Ukrainians who were suddenly made homeless by the Russian invasion bore echoes of CBS correspondent Edward R. Murrow’s CBS radio dispatches during the bombing of Britain by Nazi Germany.

There are echoes of the way Franklin Roosevelt and Winston Churchill used radio during World War II in the video addresses of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, though his skilled performance style paired with frequent use of selfie videos is perfectly pitched to today’s social media landscape and sensibility.

Even the scene of a Russian editor, Marina Ovsyannikova, holding up a sign telling Russian viewers they are being fed lies took place on live broadcast television, a decidedly old school medium. The moment was then distributed exponentially via social media.

Contrary to our penchant for too often claiming new technology changes everything, that’s not what media history teaches.

Instead, as new technology arises, it can replace older platforms as the dominant form of communication. But the older technology often lives on and eventually adapts. Think of radio.

TV replaced it by the start of the 1960s as the dominant form of communication in American life. But the late Rush Limbaugh was still doing pretty well in radio into the 21st Century. And today, we have podcasts.

In general, the most effective use of media today is in hybrid use of old and new as candidate Donald Trump did in 2016 with his mix of cable TV and Twitter messaging. Or, as Zelensky is doing in this war.

Traditional journalism and legacy media are showing their value in the great images and words their practitioners are providing out of Ukraine and the gatekeeping — yes, gatekeeping — their editors are offering in helping audiences tell what is real and what is not from those using social media to push misinformation, disinformation and deep fakes.

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