By Chloe Kent
Photo courtesy of blu-news.org.
A few weeks ago, I passed by a memorial on Second Avenue in Manhattan dedicated to those who had lost their lives to the crisis in Ukraine with a friend who, like me, had been mostly unaffected by the events in Eastern Europe until that moment. Yet seeing the memorial inadvertently caused something in both our minds to change.
As the bunches of bouquets— dyed blue and yellow to match the country’s flag— caught the light from the many candles placed along the empty street, something sparked in us both. We truly connected to the conflict for the first time, despite walking past the story on countless television screens.
During the first week of March, a Mediaite analysis of four major broadcasting networks found that the networks spent a combined approximate 6,500 minutes, or roughly 108 hours, covering the conflict. The Mediaite study commended the stations for devoting ample time to the coverage noting that “it’s always risky to devote airtime to international stories, seeing as most TV viewers quickly lose interest.”
However, each channel focused on distinct stances (CNN: “interviews with diplomatic experts and elected officials,” Fox and MSNBC: “peppered with distinct editorial angles,” Fox: presidential criticisms), yet none seemed to cut to the heart of the matter, which does not involve talking heads hammering away at the story from the same angles, arguing over criticisms, or likelihoods of the decisions of various heads of state. Instead, the human approach requires a comprehensive view on the bigger-picture issues and the larger ramifications of how the international community is affected in the wake of a conflict as cataclysmic as this.
In addition to focusing on personalization certainly seems to help connect the viewer—my friend said it was seeing the faces that made it become real for her. Maybe for me, too, it was being able to put a face to a name or, perhaps more importantly, a number. Over the past few months, as political tension rises along with the death toll, some news watchers may find the crisis difficult to personally relate to. After all, hearing that several hundred people died in protests is far different than hearing the story of one single victim, who had a family, a job, a name, and an identity.
If members of the media were to report on far-reaching news stories in a manner that would leave the strongest impression on the viewer, we would be telling stories in more layman’s terms, citing details that speak to the human heart and not continuously reporting on yet another statistic to analyze and interpret. For instance, the number 500,000, or the amount of protesters in Kiev calling for the removal of Ukrainian President Yanukovych. How about 845,000:>130,000, the ratio of Russian troops to Ukrainian troops. Or 60 percent, the number of Crimean citizens who count Russian as their mother tongue. Lastly, try $1 billion, or the amount Secretary of State Kerry promised a new Ukrainian government.
Instead, the media should reign in a focus on those whose livelihoods are truly at stake, contrasting $75 million, the figure Yanukovych supposedly paid for his mansion, with under $500, the average monthly income of a Ukrainian citizen, and zero, the number of American politicians who support intervention in Ukraine.
Some members of the media claim that humanizing victims of the conflict, like the memorial I witnessed, fosters a greater connection to the story and encourages readers to learn more, however, others claim it’s sensationalism. How, then, do we as media consumers connect with topics that are so out of our realm of what we can personally relate to, and does it even make a difference in our political opinions?
According to a recent survey from The Washington Post, the answer is a resounding yes. The study surveyed over two thousand Americans regarding what action they felt the US should take in Ukraine—with a twist. The researchers also asked participants where they thought the country was located on a world map.
The Post found that only 16 percent of those surveyed could correctly identify the country, and that “the farther their guesses were from Ukraine’s actual location, the more they wanted the US to intervene with military force.”
The Columbia Journalism School’s DART Center Guide highlighting best practices for how reporters can effectively cover tragedy maintains that successful coverage ought to take into account three groups: the victims, whose “deaths or injuries create a ripple effect of grief,” the community, which is strongly affected in the aftermath of an event by journalistic coverage and, ultimately, the reporters who, the report points out, are not “above having a human reaction.”
If educating ourselves both in terms of international news stories and basic geography makes us smarter media consumers, why don’t we just do it? Learn about the region, and the underlying ideological clashes?
Is time a factor? Is personal interest level? In my mind, it would only take the average person about ten minutes to obtain all of the basic facts about the conflict. We spend more time waiting in line at the grocery store each week. Therefore, if we can assume that the issue is personal investment in the story, the fault falls not on that of the consumers, but on the producers of our media.
If cold, hard statistics doesn’t do it for the consumer, it’s our job to bring the news to the people in a way that best speaks to them, not the network.