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Media companies must put facts into perspective for well-rounded war coverage

By Mat Booth

South China Morning Post

Hong Kong


The war in Ukraine is currently dominating headlines around the world, and it is likely to weigh heavily on the agenda across newsrooms for some time to come.

Journalists reporting on the Ukraine-Russia conflict face a considerable challenge with providing well-rounded coverage for their audience. In addition to filtering out false claims and fake news, it is extremely important to be deliberate and careful about the way the conflict is portrayed. This is especially true when we ourselves are not operating in a war zone and need to rely on newswires and third-party footage.

In this regard, we go back to the fundamentals of video journalism by focusing on factual reporting and making war coverage relatable without being sensational. Editorial processes ought to focus on providing context and a plurality of perspectives that resonate with viewers. We have to be very transparent about the decisions we make, particularly when working with material from third-party providers.

When the South China Morning Post publishes videos, the source is clearly labelled.
When the South China Morning Post publishes videos, the source is clearly labelled.

Having covered the wars following the 9/11 attacks while at CNN, I developed an instinctive skepticism covering conflicts that has helped me avoid getting caught in the crossfire of information warfare. We need to be aware that we are dealing with sophisticated media strategies by government agencies. Russian and Ukrainian narratives are vying for advantage in a war to control public perception.

It is prudent to exercise caution with every piece of news or information source to check for misinformation and disinformation. There are many sources claiming to know what the situation is like on the ground, and we have to ask the questions, “How would they know?” and “What are they really trying to say?” Inflated casualty figures from both sides are the norm, and each claim needs to be treated with suspicion and attribution.

When dealing with competing claims, attribution is key to preserving transparency. In war, viewers will often have to decide for themselves what to believe. Knowing the source of information is often the first part of that decision-making process. What we can do is debunk what we know is false, stick to verifiable facts, and be transparent about our sourcing.

Unlike many online video news providers, we always provide the source or the video as a persistent upper third on the top left of all our videos. The only video left unmarked is the video we shoot ourselves. We do this so viewers are informed about the provenance of every frame of video we feature and are reassured that the video they see has been properly vetted.

Being even-handed with our treatment of various sources available to us is also important. Government sources from any side are all treated the same way. Placing multiple sources together often gives a more well-rounded picture and shows different perspectives, which can be valuable to a viewer. Properly attributing this footage and making sure the audience is aware this is a video that a particular combatant wants us to see is the best and most appropriate way to handle this.

One of the ways of maintaining objectivity in conflict reporting is examining ways of humanising the conflict. Away from the movement of armies and the statements of governments, the ground-level view is often the most compelling. There are a distressing number of stories showing the horror of the war and how it is devastating lives and communities.

Independent news agencies like Reuters, AFP, and the Associated Press are bravely supplying us with the sights and sounds of war, and we are sensitively portraying this reality to our audience.

We do have to strike a balance between sensitivities, standards and practices, and reporting with impact. When it comes to covering violence and human suffering, we will not sanitise the news or pull punches. At the same time, we have to maintain community standards and not traumatise viewers with material that could be graphic. Graphic content warnings can be a useful tool to make more sensitive viewers aware of what they might encounter before getting into the story.

Audiences deserve truthful and independent journalism. Providing effective storytelling grounded in accuracy is essential, especially in situations that are exceptionally prone to narrative agendas. Our purpose is not to create narratives or push someone else’s, but to engage and inform our audiences about the reality of the conflict as best we can.

Our video team’s editorial approach is driven by objective assessment and mindful inclusion. Being located in Asia with a primarily Asian audience does give us a different perspective of the conflict than what you might get in Europe, Russia, or North America. Objectivity is increasingly scarce in today’s media landscape, where the state-affiliated media pursue aggressive information warfare strategies, deepening polarisation and undermining the purpose of journalism.

It is a tightrope to walk but in producing video using external sources, it is important to remember that we are answerable to our audience, and we have a responsibility to provide relevant and truthful reporting.

About Mat Booth

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