Why facts, terminology and objectivity matter: Keith Richburg and Peter Dickinson about the role of the media in covering conflicts


The mass media have a very strong influence on public opinion about ongoing events, and, sometimes, can influence their further development. For this reason, journalists must be aware of the level of their responsibility and carefully comply with professional standards when covering conflicts, noted Keith Richburg, former journalist at The Washington Post (1990 – 2013), fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard University and a lecturer of International Reporting at Princeton University, author of “Out Of America: A Black Man Confronts Africa”, and Peter Dickinson, publisher of “Business Ukraine” and “Lviv Today” magazines, at a discussion at Ukraine Crisis Media Center.

Keith Richburg reminded examples from recent history when media directly provoked escalation of the conflict, mentioning the case of Rwanda and current situation in Myanmar, and an opposite example, when journalists decided to remain silent about the events to prevent further escalation (unrest in Detroit, USA, in 1967). He also gave an example how media community in South Africa contributed to establishing dialogue after the conflict, supporting “Peace Cafes” and publishing materials with answers of both sides to the same questions, which were collected separately in interviews. “One of the most crucial things that media can do in the midst of a conflict and afterwards is to collect evidence, eye-witnessed testimonies what really went on. If there are war crimes being committed, if there are atrocities being committed – we need to have that documented. Journalists are often the first people on the scene,” noted Keith Richburg.

According to Mr. Richburg, the main rules for the journalists covering conflicts are priority of personal security, keeping balance between covering the events and non-disclosure of information which is a military secret, and careful use of terminology. “We need to remain skeptical all the time as journalists and make sure, who is giving me this information, can I confirm that these images are real in some other way and so on. It’s very difficult to do in some situations, but we can’t be so quick to rush things in. We must stick to the truth and be as fact-based as possible, and not to get swept by using the terminology that one side or another side wants”, Mr. Richburg emphasized. One more important aspect, especially for visual content, is to provide exact information about the place where events take place in order to avoid distorted perception of the overall situation, for instance, when hostilities are taking place in a limited area, while another part of the city/country continues its normal life.

As an example of how powerful the influence of the media on public opinion may be, Mr. Dickinson recalled the situation from his own experience in early 2014, during Maidan revolution. At that time he was chief editor at Ukraine-based TV channel of the Jewish community, Jewish News One. Once they started receiving calls from Russian Jewish community and suggestions to leave Ukraine as soon as possible in order to avoid persecution by “Ukrainian fascist”, as Russian state-controlled media called Maidan protesters. “We were in Kyiv, literally on Maidan, but being told we “didn’t know what was happening on Maidan”, because on Russian TV they have the truth. And these were not stupid people, these were senior members of the Russian Jewish community, obviously educated and very experienced people. But they believed these things”, he noted. According to Mr. Dickenson, Ukraine was especially vulnerable in that situation, because it was literally unknown to the international audience. “Ukraine was essentially a “blank sheet”, and when Russia wished to draw a swastika on that sheet, they could do so, because there was nothing to counter that. Russia could say what it wanted, and that it was the task for Ukraine to say “No, that is not true”. And the person who comes and says “This is not true” is always less believed that the first person,” he noted. In addition, a part of Western society with strong anti-American opinion was more likely to sympathize and support Russia, and therefore to believe narratives promoted by its media. According to Peter Dickinson, nowadays Ukraine’s position in the international information space still remains uncertain. He mentioned as an example the recent situation with FIFA issuing a warning to Croatian football player for having shouted a slogan “Glory to Ukraine!”, and how several media covered this fact.

In experts’ opinion, media literacy is the second important tool to counter proparanda and fake news, in addition to responsible work of journalists, and many countries have already started developing these courses. “Learning how to read on the Internet is as important as reading a book used to be. People may forward something on Twitter without checking is it a legitimate news source, what’s the URL along this, who are the persons reposting it or liking it. If you know that this is reposted by a bunch of racist or facist groups, you may want not no repost that. And these are basic things you can do when you get a piece of information”, emphasized Keith Richburg.

 “We need to look at informing our general public from a very young age how they consume infromation, because the experience of Ukraine has shown us that this is not just about alternative opinion –  this is a war machine. The conflict in Ukraine is the purest information-driven war that the world has ever seen, and it should be a warning to everybody. We are all vulnerable to this, and Ukraine is now in the position where it can help the rest of the world to protect itself by learning from the problems here”, noted Peter Dickinson.