Interview on the war in Ukraine: Pictures out of control

16 Mar 2022

What is shaping media coverage of the war in Ukraine – An interview with communication expert Thomas Hanitzsch

Fires in a residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine

Fires in a residential building in Kyiv, Ukraine, March 2022 | © State Emergency Service of Ukraine/Cover Images

Thomas Hanitzsch is Chair and Professor of Communication at LMU with a strong focus on journalism studies.

How does current media coverage of the war in Ukraine compare with that of other wars?

Thomas Hanitzsch: I think the one crucial difference is that most of the wars we in Germany know from the media are geographically further away from us. But this conflict is taking place in Europe: not just on our doorstep, but effectively in our own living room. That adds a completely different level of drama to the reporting. In many people, it has triggered a sense of menace that had long been forgotten.

I vividly remember a video from the Kremlin in which Putin, sitting at his desk, announced that he had put Russia’s nuclear deterrent forces on higher alert. For many people, this evoked memories of 40, 50 or 60 years ago. Fears were suddenly rekindled.

Since the 1990s, we in Western Europe had settled very nicely into our comfort zone. And now, all at once, all that has crumbled away.

The pictures we see of Putin come across completely differently to those of Ukrainian President Zelensky. What strikes you about these images?

The pictures of Zelensky fit in with the “David and Goliath” formula. On the one hand, there is the vastly superior opponent using orchestrated images to try to demonstrate power. Think of the photos of Putin and his guests around the long table, for example. They were intended to convey dominance.

On the other hand, we see the weaker party asking for solidarity. That fits in with the kind of stories we know from childhood. It helps us make sense of events relatively quickly and leads us intuitively to take the side of the weaker party.

Selfies are floating around in some cases, even of Zelensky. Does that bring us closer to what is going on?

Direct addresses by the Ukrainian President naturally give the whole thing greater poignance. If you see this kind of video, it is hard to escape the immediate impact it creates.

It is said that the Kremlin has already lost the “picture war”. What does that mean?

The Russian side took great pains to prepare for this war with advance propaganda, i.e. creating a narrative that legitimized the Russian invasion. But the pictures of war that have now emerged and are increasingly circulating beyond Russia’s control say the exact opposite: The many victims of this war tell the story of a moral defeat. One example is the fate of the pregnant woman in Mariupol who died of the wounds inflicted when a hospital was fired on. Well, the war will presumably continue for some time, and there will undoubtedly be more such images. Which means that the Russian leadership has once and for all lost control of the way this conflict is interpreted.


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The war against Ukraine is all over the established media. Yet many people look for information on social media such as TikTok and channels such as Telegram, where there is also a lot of misinformation. How can people tell which news is reliable?

With the reports disseminated via social media, you have to assume that no one has checked whether the information is actually authentic. That is equally – and above all – true for pictures that allegedly come from the theater of war. Journalists and their editorial teams have the resources and established mechanisms they need to ensure that a source is credible and to have information validated.

That is why I advise people to refer to established news sources. Of course, you can use social media as well. But you need to understand that a lot of what you find there has not been verified, and that at least some of it is fake.

What do journalists need to be aware of when reporting on a war?

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, there was a lot of criticism of how media presented conflicts, arguing that these were often condensed into simplified metaphors. Obviously, it is the job of journalists to present complex current events in a simplified form. Since then, however, more questions have been asked about how conflicts are portrayed. How much reporting covers the actual fighting compared to the damage and the victims, for example? Do we hear from the people who are affected directly, not just from the military leaders?


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Is enough attention being paid to these considerations right now?

When a conflict breaks out relatively abruptly, media coverage – for lack of other sources – tends to concentrate on official accounts from government and military sources and from experts who also belong to the social elite. That is how journalism responds to begin with. Only in the course of the conflict, as we are seeing now, does the reporting perspective also shift to the impact of the war. More stories about victims and evacuation corridors are being told now than two weeks ago, when the main focus was on whether this war might also spill over to us in the European Union.

How is the media coverage likely to evolve going forward?

Events in Ukraine are extremely fluid. In situations like this one, journalism tends to react rather than to act. People also have a huge demand for news. This makes coverage very short-lived, and the bigger background stories are not in focus at the start.

At the moment, reporting on Ukraine is smothering everything else. We hardly hear anything more about the coronavirus: Few people even realize that we are essentially already in the next wave. Climate change too is taking a back seat. That is not good for news reporting, because it gives us an image of world events that is not representative. As a researcher but also as a media user, I hope the media will soon put other relevant topics back on the agenda – topics that have been pushed aside by the outbreak of war.

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