Objective reporting from the conflict zone
Reporting objectively from a conflict is never easy. Concerns for your own personal safety and daily scenes of death and destruction mean that journalists can be overcome by personal emotion, while feelings of patriotism and “us against them” can be difficult to extinguish.
The professional ethical dilemmas presented by reporting from a conflict zone are very familiar to Anya, a journalist from the city of Donetsk, who has been covering the conflict in and around Ukraine from the beginning.
“It is difficult to remain objective in such situations,” says Anya, fully aware that journalists across all sides of the conflict face similar professional dilemmas. She was among 200 journalists and media experts from both sides of the line of contact who gathered in Mariupol, a city in the south of the Donetsk region, for the Donbas Media Forum from 9 to 12 June 2016 to discuss her personal and professional experiences of reporting on the conflict.
It was clear during the Forum, which was organized by local NGOs such as the Donetsk Institute of Information and the Donetsk Press Club that tensions among journalists deeply persist. These are partly down to the diametrically opposed political reporting on the conflict by the journalists. Indeed most of the journalists from the Donetsk region, including Anya, preferred to remain anonymous at the Forum.
Best practices on objective reporting
The discussions at the Forum explored ways of enhancing the professionalism of the reporting in ways which can help rekindle trust between communities and counter deliberate misreporting.
One of the tools presented was 'Conflict Sensitive Journalism - Best Practices and Recommendations’, a new manual published by the Officer of the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine. Among many other things, the guide offers tips on how to work with vulnerable populations or how to verify facts and illustrates in plain language and through real-life case studies what media professionals need to do in the field in order to enhance their reporting.
“The guidelines aim to both advance the safety of journalists covering the conflict in Ukraine and support the development of conflict-sensitive media coverage”, says OSCE PCU National Project Officer Maryna Bezkorovaina.
Reporting from a conflict zone: Some tips
- No story is worth your life! Journalists need to ensure their personal protection in combat operations zones – preparatory planning in advance of the trip and attending hostile environment and first aid courses are crucial.
- Truth is the first victim in a conflict. Tensions are high and people pick sides. But it is crucial for journalists to stay impartial and to seek the truth – or at least be transparent in a story about the fact that information is hard to verify due to the reporting circumstances.
- Do not stigmatise or discriminate when writing about displaced persons and other vulnerable groups and do not facilitate political manipulations on the subject.
- Make a person the centre of your story and think about consequences of your reporting.
- Do not distort reality for the sake of a nice picture and sensational text. Journalists have no justification for twisting facts, inventing non-existent things or using footage that does not reflect reality.
Source: ‘Conflict Sensitive Journalism - Best Practices and Recommendations’, published by the Office of the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in Ukraine (2016)
A threat to peace
Objective reporting from the conflict zone is important, because misreporting and propaganda can inflame tensions. The manual is therefore a product aiming to contribute to efforts to bring peace in Ukraine.
The lack of interest in and the dehumanization of the “other side” can threaten the potential for sustainable peace, says journalist Dejan Anastasijević with the Serbian weekly Vreme. At the Donbas Media Forum, he recalled his experiences as a correspondent on the Yugoslav wars of secession. “Do not make the situation worse by using harsh language against each other.”
The handbook features the results of a study implemented by the OSCE Project Co-ordinator in partnership with the Ukrainian NGOs Telekritika and the Institute of Mass Media, which revealed serious misconceptions among leading editors and prominent Ukrainian journalists regarding the role of the media in times of conflict.
The study highlighted over-generalized reporting, narratives characterised by an 'us' versus 'them' perspective, inflammatory language and dehumanization of the conflict sides. Half of the analysed national online publications reported incomplete information about the conflict, while about a quarter of the material primarily relied on data from social networks. Moreover, the problems and needs of the people living in the areas not controlled by the Ukrainian government received little or no coverage.
“Journalists need to understand that they are not soldiers fighting for a particular side,” says Oleksiy Matsuka, a journalist and founder of the web-based project ‘News of Donbas’. “The manual helps journalists return to the origins and basic rules of their profession.”
The manual was a crucial element of the OSCE Project Co-ordinator’s “Supporting Conflict Sensitive Journalism in Ukraine” project, which is partially funded by the Government of the United Kingdom and the International Media Support (IMS) NGO. The manual draws on the most up-to-date practices based on the highest quality academic research.
The book was also earlier presented in Lviv Media Forum, in western Ukraine, and English, Ukrainian and Russian versions of the book are available on the OSCE website and as an app for iOS and Android devices.
“It is extremely useful for journalists to have a handbook they can easily access whenever and wherever they need it,” says Mariana Seminishin, organizer of the Lviv Media Forum. “The manual provides both life-saving information and guidance that could pave the way for peace in Ukraine.”