Finding the right tools to cover Mariupol without reporters in the field

“It’s a throwback to the days before when we didn’t have live cameras everywhere,” former CBS News president Andrew Heyward said of the challenges news outlets faced this week as they were trying to cover a second ultimatum from Russia for Ukrainian troops. in the city to get to.

Ukrainian troops and a number of civilians, believed to number in the hundreds, remained surrounded at a steelworks in the city on Wednesday morning as another Russian deadline passed. On Thursday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said “thousands” of civilians remained stuck inside Mariupol.

“The circumstances surrounding coverage of Mariupol are perhaps unprecedented in recent times – a relatively large city being overtaken by war with very few legacy correspondents on the ground to provide first-hand accounts. There is no Ernie Pyle type correspondent in the field. There are no embedded reporters like we had during the invasion of Iraq,” said Tim Franklin, senior associate dean of the Medill School of Journalism. , Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University Franklin also helped create an international network of fact-checkers when he was president of the Poynter Institute, a nonprofit journalism think tank.

“Obviously getting independent, verifiable information from this city is very difficult for CNN,” correspondent Matt Rivers said in a report from Lviv Wednesday morning. “You can’t have teams on the ground. There’s very little communication infrastructure. It’s just hard to get in touch with people.”

Rivers reported that a humanitarian corridor may have been established by the Russians to allow the remaining civilians to leave the city. But he told viewers the information could not be verified and acknowledged Russian history of constantly lying on such matters. Indeed, no such corridor was established that day.

At the start of the brutal Russian attack on Ukraine, journalists and correspondents from institutions such as the Associated Press provided powerful and verified testimony and images from inside the besieged city. Two AP journalists, Mstylsav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka, were chased by Russian troops as Ukrainian soldiers helped them escape from the city.

But in recent days, editors and producers mostly had unverified videos, audio intercepts, government statements, social media posts by citizens and soldiers, and satellite and drone imagery for use in reporting on Mariupol. (Some Mariupol words and images labeled onscreen as coming from Reuters on Monday and Tuesday were included in cable reports this week.)

An unverified video released to US media on Wednesday showed Major Serhiy Volyna, the commander of the remaining troops in Mariupol, pleading for help. He said in the video that there were civilians and about 500 wounded soldiers at the Azovstal steel plant.

“We are probably facing our last days, if not hours,” he said in the video. “This could be the last call of our lives.”

It was scary and dramatic, but his statements were unverified.

An audio intercept of what was said to be a Russian commander saying they were going to “level everything” in and around the Mariupol steel mill also got a lot of listening.

“We are expecting surprises from Russia here,” the commander is heard saying.

When asked what kind of surprises by an unidentified voice, he replied, “Three-ton ones, from heaven.”

The interception was credited to the Security Services of Ukraine (SBU), and that identification was prominently displayed, at least in CNN’s reporting on it. But, again, this has not been verified and the steel mill has not been leveled. In fact, several media outlets, including CNN, Reuters and The Guardian, reported on Thursday that Russian President Vladimir Putin had called off the storming of the facility instead of ordering a blockade “so that a fly could not pass”.

The war involved two countries highly skilled in their use of the media and deeply engaged in information warfare as well as armed conflict.

“To maintain trust, this is a time when news organizations must do everything possible to be transparent with readers, listeners and viewers,” Franklin said. (Franklin was an editor at the Baltimore Sun when I was television and media critic for the newspaper.)

“Of course, there are tech tools they can use to try to verify the authenticity of certain user-generated videos and photos. That might help. But the bottom line is that they need to be completely upfront about what ‘they know and they don’t know.'” Franklin said.

CNN’s chief international correspondent, Clarissa Ward, says these tools have been a big help in covering Ukraine amid a deluge of amateur videos, crowdsourced content and sometimes hard-to-discern satellite imagery. .

“Because we’re limited in our movements…and we get all this information from social media, it becomes a lot harder to try to figure out what’s real and what’s misinformation, what’s current and what’s which is old,” she told Anderson Cooper in a CNN interview. “And we’re really lucky because we have a support team of multiple people working around the clock to geotag this material trying to put it into the proper context. It’s a relatively new thing in journalism that has in kind of evolved over the last few years. But it’s become a crucial part of the job.”

Heyward, a senior adviser at MIT’s Center for Constructive Communication and Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, said another challenge the media faces in covering Mariupol is public expectations. .

“Viewers are used to seeing correspondents on the spot and reporting live wherever news is happening, but that’s not possible in Mariupol right now for obvious reasons,” he said. declared. “But … the networks can rely on social media and videos generated by people still in the city, including ordinary citizens.”

Such reports “require additional vigilance and verification as well as clear communication with the public about sourcing,” Heyward noted.

“But it’s not North Korea, or Moscow for that matter: we’re still learning history,” he said. “As long as there is transparency and proper qualification, such reporting can still be of tremendous value… It can still give the public a good sense of this horrific, even unthinkable tragedy.”

Heyward offered an example of network news successfully using multiple tools to cover the fight from his days at CBS.

“You will recall that during the second Iraq war, the networks had correspondents embedded with the troops – quite the opposite of the situation in Ukraine today. But CBS News also relied on David Martin at the Pentagon to work his impeccable sources to the big picture – we had incredible access and video on the battlefield, but we didn’t want to just rely on what our teams were seeing without David providing the broader context,” he said.

“There’s nothing quite like on-the-spot reporting, but in a fluid and complex story like the war in Ukraine, journalists have to dig deep into their toolbox to get the job done – and I think we’re seeing some impressive results.”

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