The war in Ukraine, perhaps more than any other war before it, is being waged with words.
Of course, words have played an important role in every war, but in the past correspondents have operated much closer to the conflict than they are in Ukraine.
Back in April of this year, CNN’s Christiane Amanpour bragged from the InterContinental hotel in Kyiv that "This hotel is going to join the ranks of some of the great war hotels for journalists around the world. We had the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo, the Palestine Hotel in Iraq…and now the Intercontinental in Kyiv."
Of course, this begs the question, "Why are all the war correspondents from the major news outlets all huddled together in the same five star hotel in Kyiv?" Last time I checked, the war was over 800 kilometers east and south of Kyiv. It seems reasonable to believe that the job of a war correspondent is to get as close to war as possible in order to cover it as accurately and as objectively as possible.
So, what’s going on here?
Veteran foreign correspondent Patrick Lawrence says it straight out, correspondents in Ukraine are simply "not allowed to cover this conflict at close range. Their foreign editors do not want them to and the Ukrainians will not let them. Neither wants daily reports of a slow march to defeat."
Moreover, Lawrence asserts that Ukrainian officials decide what reporters can see, and essentially tells them what they can say. Then on the nightly news broadcasts former military brass and intelligence analysts "pretend to confirm their reporting." It’s no wonder, then, why the media’s messaging on the war is so thoroughly uniform.
A case in point is a report by Reuters and other news outlets about the discovery of a mass grave during the counter offensive just northeast of the city of Izyum. A Ukrainian military unit is said to have discovered a mass grave with 440 bodies in it. The video report shows a large empty pit with a soldier digging in the dirt. However, there is no visible evidence of any human remains in the so-called grave. There are no articles of clothing, no shoes, and no pact dirt that would suggest bodies were stacked on top of each other in the pit.
Conversely, just outside the perimeter of the pit there are multiple carefully dug graves, arranged in plots, and each one is marked with a cross identifying the deceased. The soldier talking in the video says they have another video that proves the site excavated was indeed a mass grave. Well, maybe they do, but Reuters doesn’t even ask to see this proof during the recorded part of this interview. They seemed content to take the official at his word, and offer a weak one sentence disclaimer stating that "Russia denies that they committed any war crimes." There was evidently no attempt by Reuters to investigate the incident or the veracity of the Ukrainian officials report. Apparently, however, someone must have raised concerns about the accuracy of this report because as I’m writing Reuters just withdrew the article and the video posting the following notice: "Ukraine-Crisis (WRAPUP 6) is incorrect and has been withdrawn."
What makes this worth discussing is that there was another report of a mass grave near Mariupol back in May of this year. The story about this mass grave was nearly identical to the one told to the media in Izyum. Once again, the Western media reported what they were told by Ukrainian officials as if it were fact.
However, this time independent journalist Eva Bartlett went to the location where the mass grave was reported to be in the town of Mangush. What she saw there was very similar to what took place in Izyum. Bartlett reported that the locals in the town said there was no mass grave there. They stated that the bodies had been treated with respect, they had been given a Christian burial, and each grave had been marked with a placard citing the name and/or number of the deceased for identification purposes. Bartlett also noted that these graves appeared to be an extension of an existing cemetery in the village.
Surprisingly, there is no universally accepted technical or legal definition of what actually constitutes a mass grave. The United Nations has defined a criminal mass grave as "a burial site containing three or more victims of execution." Other human rights organizations have proffered more precise definitions. For instance, a group of academics and legal experts at Opinio Juris have proposed the following definition in light of reports of multiple mass graves discovered in Ukraine:
A site or defined area containing a multitude (more than one) of buried, submerged or surface scattered human remains (including skeletonised, commingled and fragmented remains), where the circumstances surrounding the death and/or the body-disposal method warrant an investigation as to their lawfulness.
At present, however, there is no legally binding definition. This fact alone allows for the subject to be exploited by all sides of the conflict.
Of course, in war this should be expected. We can be sure that each side is constructing a narrative that best suits their own national interests. We can be equally sure that each side is skilled in using propaganda to achieve their respective strategic and tactical goals.
But moral equivalence is not a given. In the face of contradictory narratives journalists have a responsibility to get as close to the truth as humanly possible. And distance makes a difference. Getting to the truth in this war requires proximity to the actual events being covered.
This means, at the very least, that a war correspondent needs to be as near to the front lines as possible: not cordoned off in a hotel, not escorted around by handlers, and not parroting whatever the Ukrainian officials tell them. If you’re not where the war is being fought, then you’re not really a "war" correspondent.
And those correspondents standing on the balcony of their hotels, "reporting live from Kyiv," need to redact the word "war" from their title. They can tell us nothing about the war that we can’t discover for ourselves.
Jim Fitzgerald is a minister in the Presbyterian Church in America and a missionary in the Middle East and North Africa. His articles have appeared in American Greatness, American Thinker, Antiwar.com, and the Aquila Report.