My scary trip through Ukrainenews, Victoria

By Rob Wipond, April 2014

When it comes to complex international issues, does following the news increase or diminish our understanding?

I want to talk about something that’s difficult to talk about in person: Ukraine. But not the actual place or events surrounding it, which I know less than nothing about. (Emphasis on less, an issue I’ll return to shortly.) I want to discuss the local Victoria aspect of “Ukraine”— which is more influential over my own life.

It seems we’re talking, writing and posting online about Ukraine a lot more than we used to. We debate what’s happening there, who’s to blame, and even about what actions we should be taking: providing financial support, boycotting, brokering negotiations, sending troops, the whole gamut. 

So what caused this local cultural shift? Events in Ukraine? Many dramatic international events happen that we don’t talk about. And even though a million Canadians have some Ukrainian ancestry, many more have German or Irish ancestry, and I haven’t noticed any heavily-funded Victoria-Ukrainian PR operations. So I’m guessing it’s safe to suggest that this shift has been caused by the upsurge in news media reporting about Ukraine. 

I find that extremely concerning because the reporting that’s reaching most Victorians tends to be misleading and utterly de-contextualized, and can’t be trusted as a basis for reasonable conversations.

For example, Prime Minister Stephen Harper was widely quoted attacking Russia. They’ve sent troops to Ukraine, Harper said, which makes it an “illegal occupation” of a “sovereign territory,” a violation which has “grave implications for the legal order that protects the unity and sovereignty of all states.” And US Secretary of State John Kerry said, “You just don’t in the 21st Century behave in 19th Century fashion by invading another country on a completely trumped-up pretext.” 

These statements were reported, in most cases that I saw, unchallenged and unquestioned. Yet at the same time many Canadian news outlets were also reporting on withdrawals of Canadian troops from Afghanistan—that is, after our 12 years of military occupation there, in defiance of “the international legal order that protects the sovereignty of all states.” Kerry’s comments were reported in the wake of the blatantly trumped-up pretexts that the US government, with Kerry’s support, used for invading Iraq and Afghanistan. 

Lifted out of that highly-relevant context, these leaders sounded like sober, passionate defenders of international human rights law. In context, they sound hypocritical, manipulative and divorced from reality. 

Meanwhile, what explains the innumerable journalists who replayed these quotes without a single truly critical question directed back? All it would have taken would have been to ask, “What moral ground do North American leaders have left to stand on to make general condemnations about invading countries?”

For me, this is journalism done so irresponsibly, so irrationally, that I cannot trust it. And indeed, it’s not just the quotes from politicians and uncritical narrative that can’t be trusted in our Ukraine reporting—it’s the basic facts, too. 

Early on, for example, I saw a report that Russia had “sent 30,000 troops” into Ukraine. 

That sounded like a large number. Evidently, I thought, the Russians have invaded Ukraine. That’s a big deal. A lot of feelings emerged. I could see why Victorians were talking. 

Then I saw news reports clarifying that Russia had long had a contract with Ukraine for a major military base, and the number of troops on or near the base had recently “doubled to 30,000,” according to “Ukrainian border guards.” CBC specifically identified the source of that number as an unnamed news outlet’s interview with Serhiy, an “aide” to an unnamed border commander.

So okay, I thought, that’s a substantially smaller number. And maybe not an invasion yet, since the troops are still on or near the base. More like intimidating, large-scale military maneuvers. That is, assuming Serhiy had an impeccable eye for counting crowds, even when he was trying to drum up international concern. In any case, it still sounded serious. My opinions were developing as I was learning more.

Then I saw a reputable source that said the number of troops on that Russian base was normally 25,000—the same number as were currently there.

I laughed aloud. But when I decided to write this article, I struggled to find where I’d actually read that. As deadline approached, I thought, surely my loyal readers will trust that I got the number from somewhere reliable, right? And if not, what’s a couple indignant letters to the editor? (Witness news creation in action, folks.) Eventually I found a Wikipedia article that put the number of Russian troops normally on that Ukraine base at 26,000, with a citation linking to a study by the German Institute for International and Security Affairs. Mystery solved.

So in conclusion, then, there was no Russian invasion at all. It was more like a few extra troops being shipped in to attend a big Kazak dance or something. Meanwhile, a global terrorizing propaganda news campaign was in progress, and the real question was, whose geo-political interests were driving that? 

Now, what’s your opinion upon hearing all this?

But wait. Before going to press, I decided to check again. For the fifth time. My loyal Focus readers are counting on me, I thought. I investigated the Wikipedia citation. In fact, the German study put the number of Russian troops normally on that base at just 13,000. That number was based on “the author’s own compilation,” which was in turn based on data from a 2009 study that was behind a paywall and…Um, so where are we now? 

Maybe the actual number of troops and where they were exactly when isn’t important, anyway. Except for a headline. Or to make a point in a discussion. Or to help stir up some emotions, opinions and actions. Besides, I thought, how will I feel about having made light of all this if I soon see the headline: 1000 KILLED IN UKRAINE. And counting…

I feel terrible about even one death in war. And events have developed since then in Ukraine. But my point here is that consuming news is often not a great way to become thoughtfully informed, even if you approach it critically. International news especially, these days, is being too rapidly and cheaply produced with little room for broader context. It’s too susceptible to political scheming, and we’re all far more gullible than we like to believe. It’s usually more helpful to turn to books, academic studies, investigative reports, documentaries, non-profits, or educational events. Without doing such supplemental research, consuming news is often a fast way to end up knowing less rather than more.

And all of this helps explain how I feel when I bump into a Victorian who starts speaking with some degree of self-confidence about Ukraine, even while he’s using one of those dubious numbers or parroting something someone said in the news. It’s like a shadow or veil falling between us. I’ll be chatting with this friend, stranger, or acquaintance, and I’ll feel connected and close like we have shared perspectives that are helping us understand and appreciate each other, and then with that topical turn, I’ll suddenly feel like I’m peering into layers of propaganda. 

It’s difficult to respond. I imagine if I voice what I’m actually thinking, I’ll offend a person’s self-esteem, deeply held beliefs or well-meaning moral sensibilities. Yet it could take a lot of research and work to individually unravel all of the “facts” this person has gathered from news media to build the edifice underlying his opinion.

So I’m paralyzed. And I feel afraid for myself, for us, for our future. I’m worried about how so many of us can be so quickly manipulated by our media and stirred into opining, into condemning, into calling for actions, even calling for blood. It’s suddenly too easy to imagine my own friends and acquaintances and many other Victorians someday transforming into automaton armies who’ll take me and others away and lock us in their dungeons. They’ll be believing in some invasive cause trumped up by news media on suspicious pretexts, and they won’t spend any serious time questioning leaders or earnestly attending to alternative points of view.  

Then I think of all the approaching, complex social, environmental and economic emergencies we must begin facing and working on together as a society, and I worry that “Ukraine” discussions are the measure of what we’re capable of.

I also wonder if sometimes I myself speak without even realizing that my thoughts are actually embedded in news bites and falsified facts. So if you’re the one who sees that shadow fall between us, please: Speak out. 

Rob Wipond’s articles in Focus have won a Western Canada Magazine Award for science writing in 2013, and a Jack Webster for Community Reporting in 2012. He can be spoken to at rob(at)robwipond.com.