In the wake of Ukraine’s political crisis and violent protests throughout the country, Russia Direct interviewed journalists and media specialists to uncover trends in the coverage and learn about the day-to-day difficulties facing reporters.

A Ukrainian policeman speaks to a journalist on Grushevskogo Street on January 27, 2013 in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo: AFP / East News

Although Ukraine’s President Viktor Yanukovich has repealed anti-protests laws and dismissed the country’s Prime Minister, Mykola Azarov, there is currently no end in sight to the violent political crisis in Ukraine. 

These events are a test not only for protesters and politicians, but also those who cover on the unrest in the media. Russia Direct reached out to Russian reporters, international foreign correspondents and media experts to uncover trends in the coverage of the Ukrainian crisis and to learn about the difficulties being faced by reporters on the ground.

Logistics: Getting things done in a crisis

Artem Galustyan, reporter for Russian newspaper Kommersant, has been covering the events in Kiev since December. Since then he has learned the ins and outs of the protest, and how to handle day-to-day risks and difficulties.     

Initially, I wasn’t well-equipped. I had just a winter jacket and a scarf wrapped around my face. Likewise, I did not wear a safety waistcoat. Yet a [rubber] bullet hit me during the shootings, and it was pretty painful. In addition, the tear-gas burnt me. It was really scary,Galustyan told Russia Direct in a telephone interview. “It was also interesting to see photographers, with their faces blacked by the tire fire smoke and soot.”

After this experience he found a bandage for his face from the volunteers who work in the opposition headhunters and started using his backpack as safety waistcoat.

“I tightened my backpack on my chest [to protect it from the bullets],” he clarified. “Never ever have I thought that I could face blood and such violent protests. To me it feels disconnected from reality.”

Roland Oliphant, a Moscow correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, who is in Kiev now, also points out the extreme nature of covering Ukraine’s unrest.

“During the battle on Grushevskovo [a street in central Kiev] last Tuesday night and Wednesday I had a few close calls with rubber bullets, and later I learnt two protesters had been shot dead, which was not a pleasant feeling,” he told Russia Direct in an e-mail interview. “A colleague arrived with protective vests and helmets later, but ironically we haven't really needed them since.”

Galustyan had to work in extreme conditions during the first days of violent clashes between the opposition and the police. He felt that the adjustment happened quickly. According to him, journalists and photographers usually stay and sleep in the opposition headquarters, with a lot of volunteers helping them to get a special press card, all necessary safety equipment and working conditions provided.

“The work with journalists is well-organized here,” Galustyan added while a voice from a loud-speaker came from a telephone. “Actually, there are a lot of volunteers who assist in the special press zone. They share cell phones if you need to make a call. They bring you hot tea. You can get into the headquarters without having to wait in line. In fact, I feel that I have a lot of privileges here.”

Likewise, Oliphant said there is no problem with logistics.

“Logistically it has not been a difficult story to cover – we are right in the middle of the action and we have good access to everyone,” he said. “When I arrived I had no safety equipment at all, though I have never really felt in danger as long as I kept a safe distance from the fighting.”

Journalists, police and protesters

When asked about the relationship with the Ukrainian police, Galustyan claims that they are now reluctant to communicate with journalists, although initially, in December, they were ready to comment and provide information.

“Previously, they were no problems with police. They responded to the questions. But now, you’d better not to encounter them,” he said, pointing to the risks of being taken into custody amidst the clashes between police and opposition. “It’s dangerous to walk alone in the streets. You might be caught.”

“Police are under orders not to talk to journalists and getting their point of view is frustratingly difficult,” said Oliphant. “They were also deliberately targeting camera crews and photographers in the first couple of nights of violence. That seems to have stopped now, however.”

Unlike police officers, protesters are much more approachable and easier to get along with, Galustyan claims. “People are not frightened, everybody has his own position and comments on the situation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Oliphant points out that although journalists can move around very freely in the streets, but protesters have become much more suspicious since the violent clashes between opposition and police.

“They [the protesters] often want to see accreditation now and restrict access to certain areas - mostly, they say, because spies are handing pictures of their faces to the security services,” he said. “Most people are still pretty happy to talk though, and on the whole protesters are easy to get on with.”

According to Oliphant,  the radical groups like Spilna Sprava and Pravy Sektor are less friendly, but not impossible to get along with. At the same time, he claims that “the government side has been much less accessible to journalists.”

An injured man during clashes between pro-European protesters and riot police in Kiev January 22, 2014. The sign on the helmet reads: "Press". Photo: Reuters

Journalists in Ukraine: professional solidarity, or rivalry? 

“There may be rivalry between certain media organizations, but there is no rivalry between journalists at the Kiev barricades,” Galustyan said.

According to him, journalists have helped each other a great deal by sticking together during the protests and violent clashes between Ukraine’s opposition and police.

During the attacks, the solidarity between journalists appeared to increase, Galustyan said.

“We come together during the evenings and discuss the events. Of course, we are tired. When we understand that events are going to develop quickly and urgently, we support each other and take turns keeping watch over events for each other at different spots,” he said.  

Oliphant also hasn’t seen rivalry between journalists individually. “I know some of the Russian journalists here personally and have immense respect for them,” he said. “I'd say there is a pretty good level of solidarity, along with the usual professional rivalry, amongst everyone, regardless of nationality.”

Verification: Rumors and facts

Separating rumor from fact is the hardest part of covering events on the ground in Ukraine, according to Oliphant.

“Although journalists have lots of access to the opposition and can move relatively freely among protesters, the general air of chaos makes it difficult to understand what exactly is going on until it has happened, and there are always all kinds of rumors circulating,” he said.

The problem of verification is eternal. To quote “A definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage”, the problems comes about when “misperception and fear pervade all sides.”

“It is essential for journalists to remove themselves from the passions of those involved,” wrote Stéphanie Durand, a manager of strategic media partnerships and a range of projects at the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations in her article for the book.

Meanwhile, Galustyan admits that it is very difficult to keep calm and carry on with the coverage in extreme situations which affects the verification process. According to him, the only way to deal with the problem in such situations is to detach oneself from emotions, “switch off your human nature and get information.”

Daniel Hallin, a professor at Department of Communication of University of California in San Diego, also raises the problem of verification and accuracy. He follows the Ukraine coverage quite closely. When asked about the trends in the U.S. coverage and its objectivity, he said that “Americans, like West Europeans, tend to be sympathetic to the protests, and this is reflected in the reporting.”

“Certainly both the current President of Ukraine and Russia are presented unfavorably in the current coverage,” he told Russia Direct in a Facebook message. “But I do think the journalists are trying hard to report accurately and to give a complex picture of the conflict, with a variety of different points of view.”

Multitasking vs. Accuracy: Changing the workflow in extreme situations

The coverage of the Ukraine’s protests looks pretty remarkable in the context of the development of new technologies and social media. In reality, it creates both new risks and opportunities for journalistic integrity and accuracy, as indicated from comments of journalists and media experts.

According to Galustyan, social media and, particularly, Instagram and Facebook are indispensible for him during the coverage of protests. As he said, in the opposition headquarters, reporters can charge their laptops and other gadgets, and get access to Wi-Fi to download pictures and publish social media posts.

“Although I am not a professional photographer, Instagram is helpful for documenting the events in Ukraine as they are,” he said pointing out that pictures are easily embedded in the stories published at Kommersant’s website which to help create more detailed, nuanced and accurate coverage.      

Oliphant agrees. “It makes things both easier to follow but frustrating and difficult to keep on top of the information flow,” he said. “Ironically you often have a better overview of the real-time situation by sitting inside watching twitter than going out on the street.”

Yet some media experts warn against some “side effect” of using new technologies and social media in the coverage of the extreme situations. 

Social media makes it easier for journalists to work in extreme situations by giving them better access to direct witnesses. But reporters should be mindful about the other side of the coin, according to Hallin.

“They have to be careful to check the accuracy of information they get this way,” he said.

“My impression is that journalists are able to cover events in Ukraine first-hand,” he said. “The greatest problem is simply the complexity and fluidity of events – in contrast, say, to Syria, where it is very difficult to get first-hand access to people and places.”

Likewise, Steve Buttry, Digital Transformation Editor for Digital First Media is skeptical about the video and photos posted in social media.

“The availability of cell phones and security cameras has increased the amount and importance of video documentation. But the ease of digital video editing raises the importance of skepticism. And, of course, any video catches only part of the story,” he wrote in the book “A definitive guide to verifying digital content for emergency coverage”.

At the same time, he points to ways of using social media towards improving accuracy and verification.

“Technology has also changed how we find and deal with sources and information,” he wrote.  “Journalists can more quickly find and connect with people who saw news unfold both by using digital search tools and other technologies, and by crowdsourcing.”

“Social media perpetuate misinformation, while at the same time enabling journalists to connect and interact with members of the public as part of their work,” wrote Durand in her article. “Social media also provide a platform to respond to rumors, and verify information that ultimately creates the type of trust and transparency necessary to avoid an escalation of conflict.”