What journalists are getting wrong while reporting on Ukraine

OKSANA STUDIO Oksana Polonets (fourth from right) and her models at the Ukrainian Ambassador_s Residence in Berlin in 2017

The first diplomatic spouse’s event I attended during our posting in Berlin was at the official residence of the Ukrainian ambassador.

It was in 2017 and the country was already in the middle of a conflict, about three years in. For those few hours, as we admired the designs of Ukrainian fashion designer Oksana Polonets, which featured traditional embroidery from her country, it felt like being in a bubble. Like everything was so far away and that all would end well. The embassy was promoting their culture and we were all learning so much. It felt that way until the last few months when things started escalating and last week when a full-on invasion commenced.

Save for an episode of The Gilded Age, we’ve been glued to international news agencies for a week. The reportage related to the war has been gripping. From the Kenyan ambassador’s speech at the UN, diplomats walking out of the Russian foreign minister’s speech in Geneva, and the suffering of civilians and soldiers alike.

There are some reports, however, that leave you asking questions as to whether the journalists are doing their jobs ethically.

No room for opinions, just facts

A foreign correspondent for CBS referred to Ukraine as a “relatively civilized, relatively European nation” as he discussed his shock over the turn of events. After all, “this isn’t Iraq or Afghanistan,” as he said in the same report. Over at ITV, a female journalist said on a live report: “The unthinkable has happened and this is not a developing, third-world nation. This is Europe!”

Traditional Ukrainian embroidery on a linen shirt. An Indonesian lady who was also at the event commented how it looked so much like a barong.

An anchor from Al Jazeera, while talking to one of their correspondents felt the need to give his own commentary as he watched footage of refugees trying to get on trains. “These are prosperous, middle-class people. These are not obviously refugees trying to get away from areas of the Middle East that are still in a state of war or North Africa. They look like any European family you'd live next door to.”

Call me old school but back when I was reporting on tense international relations, we always had to keep our own biases (even for our own country) in check. Not one of the journalists I mentioned is Ukrainian so they had no personal stake. One may think that this is casual racism from Western media just bubbling up after being repressed by a job that requires someone to keep their opinions to themselves, despite the wealth of information they have access to. But that’s the essence of the job. You report the facts and you let the public make their own conclusions.

Over at ITV, a female journalist said on a live report: ‘The unthinkable has happened and this is not a developing, third-world nation. This is Europe!’

Personally, I found it ironic that the term civilized is being made to refer only to Western nations when the actual cradle of human civilization is in modern-day Iraq. Western civilization isn’t the only one that matters, right?

Yes, it’s a shock to everyone in this day and age but there was no need to compare what’s happening in Ukraine to nations experiencing conflict and war for much longer. No conflict is exactly the same.

Boxed in

This type of journalism is unethical as it normalizes war, suffering, and conflict in areas other than the West. Journalists have so much power to shape the opinion of the general public and allowing this type of reporting leads people to think that whenever war or tragedy happens in parts of Africa, the Middle East, and other parts of Asia, it’s something that is expected and there’s nothing we can do about it.

It hits pretty close to home as it’s the same when natural disasters brought by climate change happened in the West. Most of the reaction from media and even people on the ground was that those sorts of storms only come for certain countries—countries like ours, the Philippines.

As a journalist, I also work with international titles. Pitching stories about a country like the Philippines is hard, especially if it’s not about poverty, climate change-related tragedies, or violence. It’s tough to be put in a box by Western media. It’s almost impossible to get out of it.

Nobody wins in a war

As of Wednesday, I lost contact with a Ukrainian diplomat’s wife I used to be friendly with online. We followed each other’s posts about life abroad since the pandemic and I’m not sure whether they are in Ukraine or still at their post abroad. A few days after sharing a story on how we can help Ukraine, her account is now deactivated. It was the diplomat’s wife and Oksana who I immediately remembered when the news broke.

At the center of every conflict are individuals, civilians who are put in danger, soldiers following orders whether they agree or not with the motivations behind them. Violence is violence regardless of one’s skin color and being a refugee isn’t based on one’s economic status.

It’s not my place to comment on the politics of it all but I know I’m anti-war. I believe in diplomacy and institutions no matter how painfully slow they can be sometimes. I believe in responsible reporting, especially now that journalists are demonized at every turn. There’s more pressure in this career to be responsible and to do well. I hope that one day soon, we get peace and most of my conversations with fellow diplomatic spouses would be about sharing culture once more.